Despite the promises of technology to shrink working hours and give us more free time, we are leaving work later and working harder to squeeze more into the day.
In an effort to get ahead, many of us skip the gym or fun social activities in the evening and instead log on to check emails, barely having time to eat dinner and catch the latest episode of House of Cards.
But what if the key to being effective at work was to actually spend more time actively pursuing 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, new research has found that taking up enjoyable evening activities can significantly boost your recovery after work.
The concept of ‘work-life’ balance is not new and previous studies have shown that investing in a life outside work can help employees replenish their energy and return to work in a mentally strong state. However, while these studies have proven that employees can improve recovery by detaching from work, relaxing, challenging themselves through mastering new skills or feeling more in control, they have not specifically examined how pleasure gained through off-work activities can help 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
To measure how well employees recover from daily work through pleasurable activities we followed a group of 84 people working in full-time jobs in a broad range of industries. Over a two-week period we 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.
So when people choose an evening activity – for example, playing sport, having a massage or learning to cook - they should look for something that brings them pleasure to help them recover. This is potentially because 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 was an important finding 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.
This cyclical nature of pleasure and recovery has implications for both employees and organisations. Employees who continue to work at a rate that depletes their energy and prevents them from pursuing pleasurable activities in the evening, 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 invest time in restoring it through activities we enjoy outside work. Of course there when times when staying late to finish an assignment is required, but if this becomes the norm it is unlikely to be sustainable and may undermine your 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 traditional thinking in many Asian workplaces, where employees are typically rewarded for working the longest hours. That said, a growing number of companies have realised that there are diminishing productivity gains from employees working longer hours.
Treehouse, an online technology educator, has restricted working hours and claims that employee morale, retention, and quality of output, have all improved. Some large European companies such as Volkswagen and Daimler in Germany or power company Areva and insurer Axa in France have taken steps to limit out-of-hours emails to reduce burnout among workers.
Other companies have also dedicated areas to helping employees renew their energy during the day – providing spacious lounges, quiet areas for relaxation and recreational spaces with pool and ping pong tables.
These companies believe that 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.