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How to Recover from Work Stress, According to Science

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Alyson Meister, Bonnie Hayden Cheng, Nele Dael, and Franciska Krings for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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The workforce is tired. While sustainable job performance requires us to thrive at work, only 32% of employees across the globe say they’re thriving. With 43% reporting high levels of daily stress, it’s no surprise that a wealth of employees feel like they’re on the edge of burnout, with some reports suggesting that up to 61% of U.S. professionals feel like they’re burning out at any moment in time.  Those who feel tense or stressed out during the workday are more than three times as likely to seek employment elsewhere.

Because of this, employees increasingly demand mental health support, and more employers have responded by offering benefits like virtual mental health supportspontaneous days or even weeks off, meeting-free days, and flexible work scheduling. Despite these efforts and the increasing number of employees buying into the importance of wellness, the effort is lost if you don’t actually recover. So, if you feel like you’re burning out, what works when it comes to recovering from stress?

Understanding stress recovery

Recovery is the process of restoring symptoms of work stress (anxiety, exhaustion, and elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol) back to pre-stressor levels. We refer to recovery as a skill, because knowing how and when you can best recover from stress requires both knowledge (of what works for you) and practice (actually doing it).

The skill of recovery is well known in fields that require performance under extreme pressure or are characterized by the need for prolonged periods of intense concentration, where errors can be costly or even deadly. Consider a pilot on a critical mission or an athlete who has their entire career hanging on a single performance. These people learn quickly that physical and mental recovery is crucial for achieving and sustaining high performance under pressure. Pilots are even officially required to recover for defined time periods during and between duty in order to maintain safety standards, and a wealth of research explores how athletes can best recover.

Importantly, recovery in these fields doesn’t just happen when individuals feel depleted or burned out — it’s an essential part of the training and performance strategy. Effectively recovering from periods of stress, performance, or concentration is important for emotions, moods, energy, learning integration and growth, and ultimately performance, mental and physical health, and relationships.

The paradox of recovery

The process of recovery introduces a paradox. Research shows that when our bodies and minds need to recover and reset the most (i.e., when we’re most depleted), we’re the least likely — and able — to do something about it. For example, when work is demanding and we’re feeling overwhelmed, we quickly slide into a negative cycle of working longer hours and taking fewer breaks. During those stressful times, we also tend to eat less healthily, even though adequate nutrition and hydration are important to replenishing energy levels. Further depleted, we have less energy and motivation to take time out to relax or engage in exercise, leading to low recovery and in turn further exhaustion the next day. Rinse and repeat. Organizational cultures that celebrate working on little sleep or that work in a constant state of emergency can exacerbate this, because despite your body begging to recover, there’s an underlying assumption that you can (and should) push through it.

To overcome this paradox, you must learn what works best for you and devise a recovery plan. It’s important to note that what actually works for stress recovery is not always as intuitive as you think. Here are five ways to make recovery work for you based on industry- and research-based insights.

[Here is the first way.]

1. Detach psychologically from work.

“It sounds silly, but after a long, intense surgery, what I do to relax is play some video games to disconnect before I go home,” described an orthopedic surgeon participating in an executive class on stress management. Regardless of your preferred recovery activity (reading, running, video games, cooking, etc.), it’s important that you mentally disconnect or “switch off” your thoughts of work (or the particular stressor at hand). Workday stress accumulates throughout the day, meaning that we ruminate about work well into the evening. You may be physically present at an exercise class, but your mind is replaying the events of an earlier client meeting. Research shows that even thinking about work detracts from your ability to recover from it, and the mere presence of your mobile phone distracts you, leaving you unable to detach from “the office.”

As recovery can only occur when our minds return to pre-stressor levels, we need to facilitate that process by cognitively withdrawing from thoughts of work, essentially giving our minds a break.  Detachment leads to better recovery and even improvements in work-related outcomes, such as performance and engagement. This is counterintuitive to the notion that more time spent working leads to better performance.

To harness this principle, dedicate a fixed (and if needed, short) time each day when you can fully devote attention to a non-work-related activity. Even starting with a few minutes will reap benefits for recovery. Practicing mindfulness as a supplementary activity helps with this — over time, you’re training your brain (and its tendency to ruminate) to focus on the present moment. Learn which triggers prevent you from psychologically detaching from work. If, for instance, the presence of your phone prompts you to check work emails during off hours or breaks, turn it off or shut off notifications temporarily.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Alyson Meister is a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. Specializing in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organizations, she has worked with thousands of executives, teams, and organizations from professional services to industrial goods and technology. Her research has been widely published, and in 2021, she was recognized as a Thinkers50 Radar thought leader.
Bonnie Hayden Cheng is an associate professor of management and strategy and the MBA program director at HKU Business School, University of Hong Kong. She is the chief resilience officer of Human at Work and serves as a scientific advisor of OneMind at Work. She works with senior executives of companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500, transforming corporate cultures by incorporating wellness into their business strategy. Follow her on Twitter: @drbcheng.
Nele Dael is a senior behavioral scientist studying emotion, personality, and social skills in organizational contexts. She is leading research projects on workplace well-being at IMD Lausanne, focusing on stress and recovery. Nele is particularly tuned into new technologies for the benefit of research and application in human interaction, and her work has been published in several leading journals.
Franciska Krings is professor of organizational behavior at HEC Lausanne, University of Lausanne. Her research interests include workforce diversity and discrimination, work-family balance, impression management, and (non)ethical behaviors. Her work has been published regularly in leading journals in the field.


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