When work is stressful, many of us don’t make downtime a priority. Taking a break or having fun feels like something we can’t afford — and hobbies, exercise, and social activities often fall to the bottom of our list.
But new research might make you think differently about your time spent outside of work, as well as how it influences your productivity.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology explored how different types of evening activities affect our feelings and behavior at work the next day. Researchers asked 183 full-time employees from a range of IT and telecommunications companies in China to complete questionnaires three times a day for 10 workdays. In the morning, they reported how they were feeling. In the afternoon, they were surveyed about their proactive behavior — self-initiated, future-oriented actions to take control of situations and create change in the workplace, such as coordinating among departments, presenting information to colleagues, designing new procedures, or helping to set targets.
At the end of the day, they reported on their experiences after work. The employees rated whether their evening activities gave them a sense of mastery, like engaging in sports, learning a new language, or volunteering. They also rated how relaxed they felt, and how much they were able to mentally and physically detach from work.
The results showed that experiences of mastery in the evening made employees feel more motivated to make a change the next morning as well as more capable. They also reported feeling more enthusiastic, excited, inspired, and joyful, feelings that can increase our willingness to challenge the status quo and take control of work situations.
In contrast, relaxing and physically and mentally distancing themselves from work didn’t result in the same benefits. However, these kinds of experiences — like meditation, muscle relaxation, or listening to music — did make people feel more relaxed and at ease.
The study also found another aspect of leisure that led people to be proactive the next day at work: simply having the freedom to choose for themselves how to spend their time (especially if it included experiences of mastery). This gave employees a sense of personal control, which in turn made them feel like more competent initiative-takers the next day. People who have lots of external obligations — for example, to care for kids or do chores — might not feel this way.
This study illustrates the benefits of resting after work — but not by sitting in front of a screen or otherwise being inactive. Instead, if you want to be a go-getter at your job, think about resuming a hobby or finding a new one; learn that language, sport, art, or instrument that you never felt you had the time or energy to prioritize. Alternatively, you could volunteer for a project that inspires and challenges you. (This might not only help others and make you a better employee, but also increase your own well-being and even your lifespan.)
If you’re a manager or supervisor, encouraging your employees to spend their leisure time wisely can help you build a more engaged and self-directed workforce. The researchers of the study recommend that companies provide workshops or seminars to educate employees about the importance of recovery.
This study makes me want to use my rock-climbing membership for the first time. What will you do when you finish work today?
About the author: Selma A. Quist-Møller is a researcher, writer, speaker, and graduate student in psychology at UC Berkeley and Copenhagen University. She is currently doing research on empathy, mindfulness, and self-compassion at UC Berkeley.