Work/Family Balance Myths Exploded

All work and no play makes Jack and Jill dull and boring. Avoiding down time also makes them prone to burnout, moodiness and a deterioration in their long-term work performance.

A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, conducted by Sabine Sonnentag a researcher at Germany’s Technical University of Braunschweig, showed that leisure time – even one evening of doing nothing work related – increased staff’s engagement in their work.

Sonnentag looked at how having leisure time positively affects worker vigour, dedication to the job, absorption in work tasks, willingness to initiate and pursue new knowledge and work skills. She studied 147 employees at six public service organizations in Germany.

Of Sonnentag’s respondents, 65 per cent were men and 35 per cent were women whose average age was 39. They had an average of 18.5 years work experience.

The survey asked them the degree of control they had over how work gets done, their influence over the pace of work, their frustrations with equipment and resources, and time pressure. The workers were also asked to log how refreshed they felt before beginning the work day and how engaged they had been at work by day’s end.

The data revealed that workers who feel they have sufficiently recovered during an evening of leisure time experience increased levels of work engagement during the subsequent work day.

Work engagement refers to the willingness to invest effort in one’s work and be resilient during stressful situations. Being engaged at work also means being more dedicated to the job and more able to meet workplace demands. Workplace engagement means being immersed at work and absorbed in tasks. Workers who are fully engaged concentrate better and ignore irrelevant information more readily.

The study indicated that staff engagement with work increased following adequate leisure time and enhanced their ability to be proactive: Workers took more initiative and pursued on-the-job learning more readily the next day.

Sonnentag observed that showing up to work without having enough down-time after work hindered performance the next day. Workers who spent time on work-related activities during leisure time after work felt less relaxed and recovered. Those not fully recovered from a workday were reluctant to expend extra energy at work.

Fatigued workers don’t have the vigour to keep work situations positive or improve on them. They tend to detach from work when encountering difficulties or challenges and are unenthusiastic, unfocussed and less likely to seek learning opportunities or to attack problems directly.

It is important that employers encourage workers to spend leisure time in a way that allows for sufficient recovery. And waiting for that big vacation isn’t enough.

Research shows that postponing rest and relaxation until the next vacation may not be healthy for workers or organizations. Daily recovery in the evening of a normal work week supplements vacation time.

When a company experiences busy periods, Sonnentag recommends that the organization offer short recovery times after extremely stressful work days when high work demands are anticipated. This will help make companies more competitive, as rested workers more proactively deal with client concerns and create better processes, products and services. They are more apt to take charge when necessary and be flexible in their roles after an evening off.

There are five ways people can unwind from work and make the most of their time off.

1. Leave the work at home.
Resist bringing extra work home. You’ll regret using your time for work rather than recuperating. Plus, you may end up turning up for work the next day feeling resentful.

2. Plan to unwind.
Take some time to allow yourself to separate from work once you are in the door. Change clothes, put the briefcase out of sight. Take a moment to re-connect with your spouse, ask the kids about their day or have a chat with the neighbour.

3. Cherish your time.
Monitor what you are spending your time doing. Is your evening activity really what you want to be doing? If it is too much like work, you haven’t stopped working.

4. Look forward to your leisure time.
Plan activities that you look forward to for the end of the day. When you anticipate an enjoyable evening ahead, you’ll be less likely to bring work home.

5. Schedule in sleep.
If it’s a crunch time at work and a leisure filled evening is impossible, be sure to get eight hours of sleep—you’ll be ready to go the next day and be more productive.

So, go out and enjoy a summer’s evening, catch a movie, play with the kids at the park. Not only will you enjoy life more, your work life will improve too!

Drs. Newman and Grigg are following their own advice and will be away in August. Their next column will appear in September.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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