By Irene de Pater
We’ve been told often times that technology shortens working hours to give us more free time. Yet, more often than not, we feel we are not only working harder but also leaving work later to squeeze more into the day.
In an effort to get ahead, many of us skip the gym or a stroll in the evening and instead log on to check e-mails and WhatsApp messages from colleagues, barely having time to eat dinner and catch the latest episode of Big Bang Theory.
But what if the key to being effective at work is to actually spend more time doing the abovementioned pleasurable activities in the evening?
While taking time off may seem counterintuitive to those who are conditioned to press on with work into the evening, our research shows that taking up enjoyable evening activities can significantly boost your recovery after work.
Although past studies have demonstrated that employees can improve recovery by detaching from work, relaxing, challenging themselves through mastering new skills or feeling more in control, they have not studied how pleasure gained through these off-work activities can help employees reduce stress and recover from the working day.
In a study with Madelon van Hooff from Radboud University in The Netherlands, we wanted to find out if it was not just taking a break from work in the evening that restores energy, but also whether the pleasure employees derive from their off-work activities helps them generate mental and emotional renewal during and after the experience.
PLEASURABLE OUT-OF-OFFICE ACTIVITIES ARE THE MOST RESTORATIVE
We followed a group of 84 people working in full-time jobs in a broad range of industries to measure how well employees recover from daily work through pleasurable activities. We then measured their well-being and recovery through daily diaries, looking at the relationship between the pleasure employees experienced during the evening after work and their recovery state that evening and at various times during the next workday.
While we expected to see pleasure playing a pivotal role in restoring employees’ energy, we were intrigued to find that experiencing pleasure contributes to recovery above and beyond the effects of other restorative experiences such as disengaging from work, relaxing, mastering new skills or gaining a sense of control.
When choosing an evening activity — for example, playing sport, having a massage or learning to cook — people should look for something that brings them pleasure to help them recover.
A pleasurable activity can enhance the production of hormones in the brain’s ‘pleasure reward’ system to regulate the stress response and promote recovery.
We also found that the pleasure which employees experienced not only helped them recover that evening — its beneficial effects also continued into the next working day. This is vital as the ultimate aim of recovery is to help employees tackle the demands of the next working day in an optimally recovered state.
Our study showed that on days when employees had expended considerable energy and were fatigued at the end of the workday, they experienced lower levels of pleasure during that evening after work. Paradoxically, employees who would benefit most from experiencing pleasure during the evening seem least able to obtain it.
What are the implications for both employees and organizations? Employees will not recover effectively, potentially leading to decreased work performance over the long term.
MAKING TIME FOR PLEASURE
For many people working in increasingly demanding jobs, the idea of spending time visiting friends, watching a film or taking a stroll in the park after work, does not seem like the best way to become more effective at work. When we’re under pressure we have the urge to work later and power through rather than pursuing pleasurable activities. But that doesn’t necessarily make us more productive.
Our energy is not infinite and we need to restore it through activities we enjoy outside work. When staying late becomes the norm it is unlikely to be sustainable and may undermine one’s performance.
Being mentally strong is about having the fortitude to seek out pleasurable activities in the evening that will allow you to be happier and more successful at what you do.
Our research challenges the traditional mind-set in many Asian workplaces, where employees are typically rewarded for working the longest hours. In Japan, for instance, office workers work for long hours. Last year, a Japanese woman died from overwork after clocking in 159 hours of overtime.
Fortunately, organizations have realized that there are diminishing productivity gains from employees working longer hours. For instance, nurses and health workers are now given shorter hours by the government.
Giving staff time to pursue enjoyable activities means they can return to work rejuvenated, and the resulting energy boost these employees gain is important in driving sustainable productivity.
Irene de Pater is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management and Organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.