Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
My husband and I took my godmother’s new dog, a 10 month old schipperke, for a long walk across Duke East Campus, as far as the statue of Sower. What pleasure this wiggling, active, curious, explorative little creature is giving my godmother! It made me wonder what positive psychology can tell us about pets in our lives. Following this curiosity led me to an article about the importance of active non-work activities in handling work-related stress. This article is a perfect fit for my growing concern about people who are becoming too tied to their jobs. They read and answer email at all hours. They carry Blackberries, cell phones, and pagers that keep them on short leashes. They attend meetings during the day and bring ‘real work’ home where they can concentrate. They lose any sense of boundary between their work lives and their personal lives.
More time means more productivity only up to a point. Then people get tired and drained. Their ability to innovate goes down. Their resilience suffers. They produce less. They make mistakes.
“Because energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and with underuse, we must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.” Loehr and Schwartz, p. 11.
Winwood, Bakker, and Winefield (2007) explored the relationship between a variety of common leisure activities and recovery from work-induced stress. They were interested in activities that are capable of generating positive states, activities such as hobbies, creative pursuits, interaction with family and friends, physical exercise, and interaction with family pets. Here’s an example of a question used in their study:
“In an average working week, how much time in total do you spend working alone on any hobbies or creative activity you have, which give you pleasure and satisfaction, and that you do not regard as work? This includes such things as arts and crafts, handiwork, sewing and needlework, collecting, model-making, gardening, etc?”
In a heterogeneous sample of more than 300 workers, people who spent more time participating in active leisure activities reported significantly better sleep, greater recovery from work-related stress, and lower levels of chronic fatigue. The authors found that social activity was most predictive of enhanced recovery, followed by physical exercise, with hobbies being least predictive.
Becoming too busy at work can start a downward spiral. People feel that they can’t do all their work in the regular working hours. Something has to go, so they drop going out with friends or photography or going to the gym. They experience less recovery from work stress. Fatigue accumulates, non-work activities become increasingly passive, productivity declines, and work takes even more time. And so on.
A wise employer would halt this self-defeating vortex by encouraging employees to maintain reasonable hours and to break the connection to work when they go home. But that’s not a common workplace policy, as much as it could enhance the value received from employees.
So we need to watch for the temptation to drop active leisure activities in favor of work demands. Sometimes this is necessary for a week or two, but it is dangerous to health and well-being in the long run.
Look at your own life. Do you have active pursuits for your time off work? If not, what could you add back into your life? For most jobs, there is always too much to do. So do you have a policy for managing your work time so that you can let less crucial items fall off the plate? Can you justify your active leisure activities not just for the pleasure they give you, but also for the degree they help you maintain your energy at work? Mindful of the costs of chronic fatigue, do you encourage the people who work for you to get away from work?
Taking care of oneself takes time: time for healthy habits, time for mental relaxation, time for developing friendships, time for family, time for creative hobbies, and time for physical activity. We suspend these activities at our own peril.
Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.
Winwood, P. C., Bakker, A. B. & Winefield, A. H. (2007). An investigation of the role of non–work-time behavior in buffering the effects of work strain. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 49, 862-871.
“As with any single-wave correlational survey study, it is acknowledged that it is not possible to infer causation from these results, … Further, although we identify a clear association between non–work-time activity, sleep efficiency, recovery, and chronic fatigue, there is an important question that remains unanswered, namely, does work-strain recovery (with its value to sleep and chronic fatigue reduction) depend on non–work-time activity, (as we suggest), or does recovery (by some other means) permit more NWA? …
Nevertheless, the statistical power of this study was high, and the support for the study hypotheses is sufficiently strong to suggest that such further investigations are well merited. Furthermore, the neurophysiological literature suggests that adequate recovery from high-stress brain arousal, particularly when it is a regular (daily) feature, does not occur by chance or entirely through passive rest, unless the time available for such rest is generally much longer than the normal inter-shift period.” p. 868.
At Chris’ Dads (Belmont/Manchester) (Schipperke dog) courtesy of miss_rogue