Don’t wait for the holidays!

by Bernadette Healy 

Have you ever found yourself totally immersed in a state of complete work-related stress and pervasive negativity and thinking ‘everything will be fine, I have a holiday coming up in a month or two’?  This may in fact be quite a dangerous way of thinking, particularly if you are routinely planning to achieve recovery from work-related stress via annual holidays.  Research suggests that the effects of holidays fade quickly.  About a month after returning from holidays, your results on a range of wellbeing measures are likely to be back to pre-holiday levels.[1]

Recovery from work stress needs to be incorporated into your daily life.  Recovery is defined as the process whereby the body’s function and system state are returned to pre-stress position.  One of the conditions necessary for recovery is to get rid of the mental representation of the stress.  That is, it is necessary to obtain psychological detachment from work.  This means being away from your work situation, refraining from job-related activities and achieving a mental break via switching off from job-related thoughts.[2] A lack of detachment has both short and long-term negative impacts; lack of detachment in the evening is predictive of negative affect and fatigue the following morning and longitudinal evidence suggests that lack of detachment predicts emotional exhaustion over the course of a year.[3]

Interestingly those who are highly engaged (energetic at work, dedicated and absorbed) particularly need to ensure that they detach in the evenings if they want to arrive at the end of the week in a healthy state.[4]

Detaching, possibly including a ‘de-brief’, is particularly important on work days that leave you filled with negative thoughts and feelings – if you have had positive outcomes at work allow the naturally occurring positive thoughts to spill over into your evening (there is no particular psychological benefit to be gained by debriefing about this kind of day and it may even risk a return to increased work-related thoughts!).  However if you have had a day that leaves you feeling negative, it is important to detach and to do so as close as possible to the end of the work day, preferably before you get home.  Acknowledging what went well during the day (e.g. ‘3 things that went well today’ from the work of Seligman and the positive psychology movement[5]), debriefing difficult situations and organizing your thoughts about required next steps tomorrow are some of the ways that you can begin the detachment process and contribute to your recovery.  Allocating a specific timeslot for these activities, preferably as the last on your ‘to do’ list at work, will help you to build a recovery process habit into your working life.

After you leave work (having hopefully completed the exercise described above), engaging in exercise, social activities and hobbies or interest areas will further assist the recovery process.  In order for these activities to assist in the recovery process, they need to be absorbing enough to require your full attention as it is this cognitive state that enables you to fully let go of the mental representation of the job stress.

A few summary questions to ask yourself:

How well do you detach from work during non-work time (including breaks such as lunch)?

Do you worry about work frequently?  Do you actively solve work problems in non-work time?

Are you aware of your actions? (Consciously choosing to solve a work problem in non-work time will have less negative impact than being unaware of allowing work issues to take up non-work time such as via ongoing negative rumination about work)

When you are aware of feeling particularly negative about work – do you create opportunities to talk through the issues to allow closure?

Do you regularly engage in absorbing non-work tasks / activities?

What sorts of things hinder your detachment?  E.g. are you too responsive to technology in your non-work time?

Do you make regular effort re planning and organizing your work? Including avoiding the use of prime morning work time for small non-critical tasks; the identification of doable ‘chunks’ of work; and the identification of steps for the next work day at the end of each work day etc.  Research suggests that those who plan and organize their work are less likely to have trouble detaching from it in non-work time.

If you have to work at home, think about strategies to help you separate work and non work, such as via only using one space at home for work, putting your lap top and other technology away for certain hours of the evening, ensuring that at least the last hour before bed is totally free of work-related activity.

Actively participating in a regular job stress recovery process will help to ensure that you don’t just do your work but that you thrive while doing it!

[1] Kuhnel,J. & Sonnentag,S. (2011). How long do you benefit from vacation? A closer look at the fade-out of vacation effects.  Journal of Organizational Behaviour Jan.

[2] Etzion, D., Eden, D., & Lapidot, Y. (1998). Relief from job stressors and burnout: Reserve service as a respite. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 577-585.

[3] Sonnetag,S., Binnewies,C., & Mojza, E.J. (2008). “did you have a nice evening?” A day-level study on recovery experiences, sleep , and affect. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 674-684.

[4] ibid