Many of us have experienced personally or witnessed among our friends and colleagues either some symptoms or a full-blown burnout. In this article, I wanted to reflect my experiences with a study that examines recovery from work-related efforts and job demands and resources. What can be done before the burnout symptoms start to appear? How can we improve our well-being through better recovery experiences? Is a combination of job crafting and a focus on after-work recovery the key to improved and sustained well-being?
Recovery before burnout or after it?
Avoiding burning out and the long healing process that follows is more critical than ever, especially among knowledge workers. Recovery from burnout is a long process and quite often leads to major changes in (work) life. My experience tells me that in most cases the one facing burnout symptoms is the last person to acknowledge or admit them. Moreover, the people who crash under negative work pressure are often the ones people around them least expected.
I have been personally exhausted from working too hard a few times as well. But with some luck, good leaders, and supporting colleagues around me—and a summer vacation right behind the corner—I have been able to change the course early enough and recover from work-related efforts before burning out. These personal experiences have led me to seek more information on the process of recovery and what affects it. How can we better recover from work efforts while living the busiest years of our lives with increasing demands both at work and at home?
For this article, I reviewed a meta‐analytic study that examines the antecedents and outcomes of four recovery experiences: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control. In the study, the researchers Andrew A. Bennett, Arnold B. Bakker and James G. Field formed a comprehensive framework to understand how both after-work recovery and work characteristics collectively relate to well-being. I will next introduce you the concepts behind the research before getting back to more personal notes.
The balancing act of demands and resources
The Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model was first presented by Demerouti et al. in 2001. It describes the leadership and everyday challenge between team and organizational demands (e.g. time pressure, high workload, etc.) and personal work resources (e.g. autonomy, job crafting possibilities, etc.).
Work demands can be either “positive” challenge or “negative” hindrance demands. Positively challenging job demands typically produce positive well-being outcomes. Job demands can also have negative indirect results, which we will cover later. It is also known that people experiencing high work engagement can react positively on high workload. In addition, people feel positive when they have autonomous work motivation and thus enjoy their work and gain meaning of it.
The negative hindrance demands emerge when work relationships or environments interfere with goal attainment (e.g. role conflict, conflict at work, overload, etc.). Hindrance demands often have negative outcomes on well-being and prevent after-work recovery. There is also the risk that hindrance demands spill over to home and home relationships, which leads normally to lower level of energy and control.
Job resources are characteristics that help an individual to achieve work goals or stimulate personal growth. Typical job resources are job control, autonomy, job variety and job growth opportunities. These resources are positively linked to well-being, although there is an increased risk of work spilling over to nonwork time. Despite the risks, job resources are usually positively related to the recovery experiences.
Recovery experiences and their outcomes
Human energy is always limited and varies daily, as do other resources at work. These fluctuations can be seen in organizational outcomes such as job performance and “good citizenship” behaviour, and therefore supporting individuals’ recovery from work-related efforts should be a priority for employers.
When individuals put their psychological resources such as energy into use, they perform at their tasks but also deplete those resources. Recovery of the resources happen only after effort is no longer put into the task. If recovery does not happen, individuals suffer from negative effects such as impaired well-being.
In the study I reviewed, human energy is assessed in two dimensions: vigor (“pleasant or positive activation”) and fatigue (“unpleasant or negative activation”). People have different types of recovery experiences that may take them towards vigor and away from fatigue. Relaxation or psychological detachment from work may reduce or stop the psychological load from a work task. This halts the negative effects of the load and enables energy levels to return to normal.
Building up additional psychological capabilities is also beneficial for recovery. They help if people have experiences of mastery or control, such as knowing what to do and why. One way to increase the capabilities is to nurture a continuous learning mindset, which enables people to develop new skills both at work and at home.
One of my worst leadership (or managerial) experiences has been when a team leader in my organization went on a burn out “vacation”. The feeling of failure is massive when you are even partly responsible for taking the person to the edge and beyond because of a demanding project. To avoid working yourself or pushing others to work to exhaustion, we need to bear in mind that recovery also enforces positive engagement at work. It is possible to “work hard” and get good results without sacrificing your well-being.
One of the most interesting findings in the study was that both work characteristics and after-work recovery play an important role in our well-being and that they have the capability to reinforce each other’s effects on recovery. We should focus on securing time for recovering after stressful or intense work days, but also bear in mind that the characteristics of our work may help us recover.
The obvious path is to empower employees and give them control and power over their work tasks and decisions, i.e. allow job crafting. It should lead to positive results for after-work recovery and individuals’ well-being. We should also focus on the positive challenges and get rid of negative hindrances. This will increase our possibilities for job crafting leading to improved work engagement. As the research shows, increasing challenge demands might lead to negative outcomes as well. Therefore we need to carefully balance the challenge demands with available resources and leave time and room for psychological detachment and relaxation as well.
Another interesting finding was that having positive challenges at work doesn’t affect other domains, but experiencing hindrances or boredom at work might lead you to seek more challenging tasks, hobbies, renovation projects or similar at home. If you are positively engaged and experiencing challenge demands at work and still have the urge to challenge yourself after work, you need to be careful in finding a good balance and enough time for after-work recovery too.
My thoughts on recovery and work engagement
It might be obvious that we all need both positive challenges at work and enough recovery time and recovery experiences outside of work. Then why is it so that many of us, the knowledge workers, forget to take time to recover? Do we think that work challenges are more important than our well-being? For sure the career ambitions are one factor as well. But let’s keep in mind that without recovery even positive work engagement will eventually change into workaholism and you might even find yourself facing burnout.
Following the latest discussions I want to end this article on a positive note. I already see the change that leads to us knowledge workers getting back the control of our time, also for recovery. The importance of well-being is being acknowledged more and more and organizations have noticed the positive correlation of well-being to productivity and customer satisfaction. Personally, I am sure that this kind if thinking will be a key differentiator in the employer image and branding today and in the coming years. The change to more balanced job demands and resourcing has started.
Both work characteristics and after‐work recovery play an important role in employee well‐being.
Enable and support job crafting at work (autonomy, job control, job variety, personal growth possibilities). Studies have found that better job resources will lead to better well-being at work and after-work. After-work recovery will lead to positive reinforcement cycle of job resources.
The positive “challenge demands” seem to produce mainly positive effects on vigor of employees, but the total impact on well-being is lower due to the negative indirect (e.g. work taking too much of your free time) recovery experiences. A good balance is needed.
The study found that the perceived positive challenge in one domain does not impact other domains, but experiencing hindrance or boreout at work might lead to a need of positive challenges at home. But be careful not to take on too many challenging projects at home to ensure recovery experiences.
The research that I reviewed for this article is a meta‐analytic study (sample size 26,592) published in Journal of Organizational Behavior in 2017. It examines four recovery experiences: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control. In the study, the researchers Andrew A. Bennett, Arnold B. Bakker and James G. Field integrated (work) recovery experiences into the challenge–hindrance framework of job demands, creating a more comprehensive understanding of how both after‐work recovery and work characteristics collectively relate to well‐being.
The results of the study show that the positive “challenge” demands have stronger negative relationships with psychological detachment, relaxation, and control recovery experiences than the negative “hindrance” demands. Additionally, job resources have positive relationships with relaxation, mastery, and control recovery experiences. Psychological detachment after work has a stronger negative relationship with fatigue than relaxation or control experiences. Control experiences after work have a stronger positive relationship with vigor than detachment or relaxation experiences. Additionally, the study implies that both work characteristics and after‐work recovery play an important role in determining employee well‐being.
Andrew A. Bennett, Arnold B. Bakker and James G. Field. “Recovery from work‐related effort: A meta‐analysis”. Journal of Organizational Behavior 2018;39:262-275. First published: 11 August 2017. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2217
Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 499-512. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.86.3.49