Overworked? Good habits, not holidays, are the answer

Psychological detachment can help you recover from work related stress. Flickr/Stuart Pilbrow

Australians work very long hours compared to workers in other developed countries. But evidence shows that employees who work more than 48 hours per week, or are overcommitted or over-invested in their work tend to have have poorer cardiovascular health than other workers.

In fact, long work hours increase risk of dying from cardiovascular heart disease, risk to family functioning, injury at work, smoking intensity, anxiety, digestive problems, and alcohol abuse.

So if we need to work long hours, what can we do to recover?

Common wisdom suggests that having holidays is important for restoring well-being and re-engagement in your work. After all, you’re spending time with your friends or family, doing the things that you enjoy. Best of all, you’re not at work.

However, research has shown that the benefits of a holiday tend to last only two to four weeks. After that, you’re left just as burned out as you were before your holiday.

So instead of having large breaks every few months or once a year, it’s better to incorporate simple recovery practices into your everyday routine.

At home

One recovery practice that has received considerable research attention is psychological detachment.

Psychological detachment is defined as “an individual’s sense of being away from the work situation” and is crucial to recovery from daily work stress, giving us the energy to face the next work day.

Modern-day work demands like long hours and mobile technology interfere the recovery process by inhibiting our ability to psychologically detach from work-related thoughts. But there are a number of ways one can consciously shift away from thoughts of work and psychologically detach.

Avoiding work emails at home or incorporating rituals like changing out of your work clothes can signal the end of the working day and aid the mental transition away from work.

After that, getting absorbed in enjoyable and challenging activities such as sports, exercise, volunteering, or creative pursuits have all been found to be useful. But they can only help you psychologically detach if you’re fully immersed in the activity, replacing negative job-related thoughts.

Use exercise or a creative hobby to displace stressful thoughts of work Flickr/AirmanMagazine

There’s no single type of after-work activity that suits everyone. Your recovery activity simply needs to enable experiences that will aid with psychological detachment from work.

Focus on finding the right activity for you; activities that relax and provide you with a sense of mastery. For example, I recently took up knitting to help me psychologically detach from work. Knitting itself is fairly low effort; I can relax and watch a little television while I do it. But importantly, it requires just enough of my attention to distract me from work-related thoughts.

Learning to knit provided some challenge initially, but as I slowly improved my skill I was then able to learn more complex patterns. My sense of mastery over the task distracts me from work-related thoughts and aids the recovery process. These same principles could be applied to getting involved in sports, exercising, playing a musical instrument, volunteering, or engaging in other hobbies.

While at work

There are also activities you can do during the work day to reduce stress and aid recovery.

To help reduce nagging thoughts of “unfinished business”, plan and organise your work day. Develop a clear picture of what you can realistically get done during the day, and don’t start a new task shortly before leaving work.

Leave the office and eat your lunch in a park or garden. Flickr/Garry Knight

Taking rest breaks is also important. Research shows doing errands on your break is detrimental, micro-breaks and brief naps are re-energising, and it’s good to seek out natural environments like parks during breaks.

What can organisations do to help with their employees’ recovery? Keep workloads manageable, promote a culture of work-life balance, and provide designated areas at work for rest breaks.

With many serious health risks associated with overworking, a vacation once or even twice a year may not be enough to protect yourself from the debilitating effects of work stress.

We should all try to keep our work hours in check. But if it’s not possible to work less than 48 hours per week, we can manage our work days, and our home life, to aid recovery from work-related stress.