How do we best recover after work?


author: Matic Matjašič, head of development, Beep Institute

In the last two decades, we have been faced with an increase in the intensity of work (eng. work intensification), which is on the one hand pthe result of the orientation towards a constant increase in profit and, on the other hand, the constant availability of employees, which is a result of information technology and new forms of work at home. Employees today face increasing cognitive and emotional burdens, which threatens their well-being. In order for employees to be able to cope effectively with increasing work demands, it is essential that they maintain optimal physical and mental health. Effective recovery after work undoubtedly contributes to this.

Although active coping with stress is important, this is often not possible. The causes of stress can be deeply rooted in the work culture, making change difficult to achieve. At the same time, employees often do not have enough resources such as time, energy and knowledge to help them change the stressful situation. Data show that more than one in three employees deal with stress on a daily basis. In any case, recovery after work is beneficial, since long-term activation leads to a deterioration in well-being.

What is post-workout recovery?

Recovery refers to the process by which systems that have been activated and exhausted during work effort return to their previously optimal level. Recovery is therefore a process that is the opposite of stress and results in the restoration of mood, energy and reduction of physical symptoms of stress.

The importance of recovery after work or another form of effort is explained by two psychological models: The Effort-Recovery model and The Conservation of Resources Theory. The first assumes that exerting effort in a certain activity leads to physiological and psychological consequences, which include physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. Prolonged exertion without intermediate phases of recovery can lead to a number of negative outcomes, including burnout, reduced performance and deterioration of well-being.

How does recovery from work occur?

Recovery can occur after the end of work, if during this time we do not perform tasks that require the use of the same body systems that were active during work. The second model relates to our natural need to acquire and conserve resources. By sources, I mean both external ones, such as, for example, finances as well as internally such as a positive mood and energy for work. Stress threatens these resources, as it can lead to financial loss or a decrease in energy and mood, which in turn threatens the general well-being of the individual. The acquisition of new resources and the restoration of lost resources (energy, positive mood, self-efficacy) therefore contribute to a better recovery from stress.

Recovery therefore occurs when we do not engage in activities after work that require the use of the same systems as during work. At the same time, gaining new resources (e.g. improving mood and restoring energy) will further help with resource recovery.

Activities and experiences for better recovery

Stress most often threatens our mood, so after work it makes sense to engage in activities that make it possible to lift the mood. In the research, where they studied the impact of various leisure activities, they found that physical, social and low-demand activities lead to an increase in daily well-being, while work-related activities in free time lead to a decrease in daily well-being. Recovery is not only important for the well-being of employees, but the level of rest in the morning is a good predictor of work engagement and proactive work behaviors during the work day.

Recovery is made possible by the following four experiences, which are also described in more detail:

  1. psychological disconnection (physical and mental absence from work),
  2. relaxation strategies (e.g. meditation),
  3. coping strategies and
  4. a sense of control.

Research shows that individuals who frequently engage in these four activities enjoy higher levels of well-being than others.

  • Experiences of psychological disconnection

Simply being physically absent is not enough to fully recover from work demands and work stress. The key is psychological absence, which means the absence of work-related activities as well as thoughts, which in turn leads to the restoration of the psychological and physical systems used during work and the replenishment of resources.

  • A relaxing experience

Relaxation refers to a state of low activity and increased positive mood. At the neurological level, it is a low activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system, which, along with the parasympathetic nervous system, regulates bodily functions such as heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. The sympathetic nervous system is also known as the "fight or flight" system, as it is activated in stressful or demanding situations when a quick reaction is required. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, pupils dilate, blood flow to muscles increases, and digestive activity decreases. Lowering the activation of the sympathetic nervous system can help reduce stress, improve cardiovascular health and overall well-being. This can happen in a state of rest, relaxation or meditation, when the body does not have to respond quickly to external stimuli. Many also achieve relaxation indirectly by engaging in light, low-demand activities that may vary from individual to individual (e.g. a walk in nature, watching TV, reading a light book, etc.). Any experience that lowers the activity of our nervous system and improves mood will lead to relaxation. In the long run, regular relaxation is crucial, as long-term heightened activation is the bridge over which work stress can turn into illness.

  • Coping experience

Coping experiences refer to activities outside of work hours that distract from work by providing challenges and learning opportunities in other areas. This can be learning a new language, a musical instrument, learning a new hobby or improving in a certain sports activity. Mastery experiences challenge the individual without overwhelming their abilities. Although coping experiences may place additional demands on the individual, they are expected to lead to recovery as they help develop new internal resources such as skills, competencies, and self-efficacy. In addition, mastery experiences in free time will help improve positive mood, which is especially true for participation in sports activities.

  • Supervision experience

When we have control over our free time, we are more likely to engage in activities we enjoy. Organizations that allow flexible work schedules allow the employee more control in the organization and coordination of private and business life. On the other hand, a work culture that respects the free time of its employees will not expect them to be constantly available, which allows the individual to freely manage their free time.

Leisure activities

The mentioned four experiences are more easily achieved with certain activities. Spending time in a hobby that completely absorbs us also facilitates psychological disconnection from work. Activities are roughly divided into two parts: the first are work-related activities, such as completing work tasks and preparing for the next day. Others are related to light activities (e.g. reading a book, watching TV), social activities (hanging out with friends) and physical exercise.

When examining work-related leisure activities, most studies show a negative impact on daytime well-being as well as low levels of recovery and rest the next morning. It is interesting that in the case of individuals who are internally motivated for these activities and it is not about tasks that would be assigned to the employee by a superior, there is no negative effect of work-related activities.

Household and other domestic activities were not associated with indicators of well-being in most studies, perhaps because it is a very mixed set of activities.

Regarding activities with a low commitment profile, researchers have distinguished between more passive and more active leisure activities. For more passive leisure activities, some studies show positive effects, while others show no effect on well-being. Motivation plays an important role in this, which affects whether these activities have a positive effect or not. Most studies examining more active leisure activities have found that social activities, such as hanging out with friends, are associated with increased well-being during the evening, high energy levels, and a low need for recovery before bed. These activities are associated with high energy levels and low levels of exhaustion the next morning as well.

Physical exercise is positively associated with evening energy, increased well-being and positive emotions. Interestingly, physical exercise did not lead to a decrease in negative emotions, which suggests that other activities are also necessary for this purpose. However, the effects of physical exercise also carry over to the next day, when employees report a higher level of rest and energy.

In addition to the motivation for leisure activities, the emotions that we experience in doing so play an important role. If we experience positive emotions during work and household activities, then these activities will not negatively affect the level of recovery. On the other hand, it is believed that experiencing negative emotions during activities that otherwise lead to greater recovery (social and sports activities) reduce the strength of these activities and their positive effects.

What people do in their free time has a significant impact on the level of recovery from stress as well as the general level of well-being. Here, it seems that motivational and emotional factors that we experience when performing individual leisure activities play an important role.

So how to recover as best as possible after work?

Psychological disconnection is easier to achieve by implementing so-called segmentation strategies, which set clear boundaries between work and private life.

  • Each employee can set rules regarding the use of work-related technology in their free time: turn off notifications; if there is no other way, we limit the reading of work messages to a certain time frame, e.g. between 19:00 and 19:30; if you work from home, put away your work tools after finishing work and do not carry them to other parts of the home; if possible, we agree at work when we are available and when we are not.
  • Psychological disconnection is also increased by immersion in other forms of leisure activities. Here, it turns out that the best choice is physical, social and low-demand activities, while work-related activities reduce the individual's well-being. If these leisure activities present us with a challenge and enable us to learn new skills, in addition to psychological disconnection, we will also experience the experience of mastering and acquiring new resources.
  • A change of environment also facilitates psychological disconnection, with nature proving to have the greatest effects on regeneration and relaxation.
  • The experience of relaxation can be achieved directly through relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and calm breathing techniques. When breathing calmly, emphasize exhalation, which should be longer than inhalation. To begin with, let's start with 4 seconds of inhalation and 6 seconds of exhalation. Let's do this for 3-5 minutes. It is very important to breathe with the abdominal diaphragm, where we can help ourselves by placing the palm of our hand on the abdomen and watching how it rises with each inhale, and lowers with each exhalation (we can slightly tense and pull the abdomen inward).
  • The technique of calm breathing can be continued into progressive muscle relaxation or performed separately, which suits us better. Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique where we tense and relax individual parts of the body in a planned manner. During periods of stress, the muscles of our body contract, which we often don't even notice. The very technique of tensing and relaxing the muscles leads to relaxation, and at the same time we learn to recognize the body's feelings of tension and relaxation, which will help us recognize the symptoms of stress in the future and alleviate them.

Instructions for performing the muscle relaxation technique

Begin with deep breathing and steady breathing, where inhalation lasts for 4 seconds, followed by a longer 6 second exhalation. Repeat this a few times to relax. Begin by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your legs. Tighten the arch by curling the toe and holding the tension for 5 seconds, then release. When doing this, pay attention to the feeling of relaxation and difficulty that is released from the muscles. Continue to tense and relax the muscles in your calves, thighs, stomach, arms, shoulders and face. Each time you tense a muscle, hold it for about five seconds, then relax and feel the tension release.

With the high demands of modern work, effective recovery is crucial for maintaining well-being as well as long-term work performance. Recovery, which involves psychological disconnection, relaxation, mastery and a sense of control, helps restore depleted systems and improve well-being. Non-work related activities such as exercise, socializing and relaxing activities are most effective in recovery. It should be taken into account that people are different and what helps one person may not help another. Let's try to find leisure activities that motivate and make us happy, as this has a significant impact on the positive or negative outcome of recovery and well-being.


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