I’ve heard people say that if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life. However, most ambitious people who love their jobs seem to overwork themselves into physical breakdowns every few months. In fact, there is research that shows that those who feel a deep sense of purpose or moral duty towards their work are more likely to tolerate exploitative work conditions (1). So, what’s the middle ground between work as drudgery and work that encompasses all your time? Is it realistically attainable? How do we navigate the increasingly blurry borders between work and the rest of our lives?
Boban is a senior manager in his early 30s, at a company that enables the urban infrastructure for electric vehicles. Until a few months ago, he had been feeling good about his performance and growth in this relatively new role. Unlike previous roles, his current job enables him to switch off from work at the end of the day. However, this ability to switch off vanished as soon as a season of layoffs descended on the company. Although Boban knew that his job was safe, he felt extremely responsible for what happened to the people on his team. “Now it’s like hours after leaving the office, I can’t stop thinking about a conversation I had with one of my team members. He was telling me how strained he is financially, and I’m thinking about the low performance ratings he’s receiving in his appraisals. A part of me knows it’s not my responsibility, but another part of me keeps feeling I could have done more to help him improve his performance this year. But, if not him it would be someone else, anyway…” What Boban is experiencing is an inability to psychologically detach from his work. This leads to a lack of what is known as “work recovery”.
Work recovery is the “unwinding process of reducing or eliminating strain caused by the stressors of work.” (2) Work tends to be high stakes - our reputations, teammates, deadlines all depend on our performance. This leads to a state of biological arousal - our stress hormones peak, and our minds are alert and attentive for many hours of the day. This drains cognitive and physical resources at a much faster rate than a state of physical ease. We need recovery to take us back to baseline levels of rest, cognitive ease and somatic functions (3). However, work recovery is not the same as just taking part in non-work activities. There are four types of experiences that facilitate recovery (2) -
- psychological detachment - or mentally “switching” off from work;
- relaxation - or an experience of physical and mental ease that occurs when the body and mind are engaged in non-demanding ways;
- mastery experiences - or the experience of growth, achievement and goal attainment in non-work realms; and
- control - or the experience of having a say in how one’s non-work time is spent.
So, the ways in which an individual experiences non-work activities determines whether or not they lead to recovery. While childcare, exercise and commuting might shift attention away from work, in order for the body and mind to actually recover, one needs to experience a level of psychological detachment and a state of relaxation and ease. A relaxed drive back home can be restorative, but if it is plagued with anxieties about work, as far as your mind is concerned, this is extended work time rather than rest. It’s crucial to experience recovery frequently. If not, you risk a permanent or semi-permanent change in your baseline hormonal levels (4). Effectively, this means you need to find ways to recover in your schedule, rather than working long hours to take a vacation at the end of the month.
The most complicated aspect of building work recovery into your day-to-day life is when lines between work and everything else blur. Shwetha is an entrepreneur, who runs a business with her husband. Running your own business and working with your partner - two things that make it extremely difficult to truly take a break from work! Though it takes constant calibration, Shwetha feels like they’re on the path of putting systems in place that work. “The key is that we both work on our own balance, and also make sure that we’re not slipping back into work conversation outside of work hours” she said. To make sure they’re not always talking about work, Shwetha makes sure that she and her husband do activities together that are not related to work. When one of them slips back into work talk at home, the other catches it and they consciously change the subject.
Here are some questions that can help you identify whether you’re getting enough recovery from work:
- Do you wake up and/ or go to sleep with thoughts of work on your mind?
- In a typical workday, do you spend at-least 3 hours engaged in non-work thought and activity?
- How often do you experience your attention immersed in non-work activity? - this could be a pottery class, cooking, or social conversations
- Does your body feel tight rather than at ease?
- Do you spend 3-4 hours a day away from screens?
If your work is ingrained with your personal life through relationships with colleagues, working from home, etc. it becomes important to establish boundaries. Dr. Seema Nambiar, a clinical psychologist advises the same. “Creating physical distance between the place of work and place of rest can be crucial if you work from home and struggle to switch off,” she says. She suggests strategies such as establishing timings during which you don’t engage with work communication, and establishing specific areas of work and rest for those who work from home. “Creating a period of rest between work and sleep is very important for high quality sleep,” says Dr. Nambiar. “It takes time for the arousal state to wear off, and while we might feel physical tiredness, our minds need longer to reach a rest state.”
Shwetha loves her morning cup of coffee before she jumps into making her to-do list for the day. It’s crucial to view these periods as rest rather than procrastination from work. When work stress is high, it becomes more difficult to engage in recovery, even though it’s more needed - this is known as the recovery paradox (5). At times like these, immersive non-work activities become crucial, as detachment is more difficult. These could be social engagements, physical exercise, or a hobby. If they lead to “mastery experiences” of growth and achievement, even better! Boban finds that playing cricket with his friends whenever he can sets him up for the day with a clearer mind.
While there are varied pressures to ensure that you meet your work targets, the only person who can make sure you get restorative rest is you. Effective solutions are subjective and contextual, otherwise they risk falling into the toxic cycle of making you feel guilty for not doing better at resting. The only essential part is to view recovery as crucial rather than secondary or optional.
Identify spaces in your week and day that give you calm, enjoyment, or immersive experience - commit to and protect them! Future you will be grateful.
- Bunderson, J. S., & Thompson, J. A. (2009). The call of the wild: Zookeepers, callings, and the double-edged sword of deeply meaningful work. Administrative science quarterly, 54 (1), 32-57.
- Sonnentag, S., Venz, L., & Casper, A. 2017. Advances in recovery research: What have we learned? What should be done next?. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22: 365-380.
- Steed, L. B., Swider, B. W., Keem, S., & Liu, J. T. (2021). Leaving work at work: A meta-analysis on employee recovery from work. Journal of Management, 47 (4), 867-897.
- Schlachter, S., McDowall, A., Cropley, M., & Inceoglu, I. (2018). Voluntary work‐related technology use during non‐work time: A narrative synthesis of empirical research and research agenda. International Journal of Management Reviews, 20 (4), 825-846.
- Sonnentag, S. (2018). The recovery paradox: Portraying the complex interplay between job stressors, lack of recovery, and poor well-being. Research in Organizational Behavior, 38, 169-185.
Aishwarya Yadalam runs the Burnout to Balance program and is pursuing an MSc. in Organizational Psychology. She also holds an Ed.M from Harvard.