Detachment and recovery after work: An overview

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Roxane L. Gervais, Health & Safety Laboratory, UK

Introduction

Psychological detachment, i.e. the need to detach from work, when not at work, is becoming more vital, due to the increasing technological advances that make it easier to stay connected to the workplace, through e.g., e-mail, ‘smart’ phones and teleworking. These changes have contributed to researchers progressively highlighting the importance of recovery from the work environment, especially in terms of maintaining a good balance between work and life, and thereby, enabling better health and wellbeing. This article discusses: the detachment and recovery concepts; their relationship; and impact on workers’ health, wellbeing and productivity.

Detachment and recovery: An overview

Psychological detachment, hence after referred to as detachment, relates to a sense of being away from the work situation [1], p. 579. Since the emergence of the term, there has been an accumulating amount of research evidence to support the need for workers to detach from work when not at work, to allow them to replenish their resources, and thereby, enable them to sustain their health, wellbeing and performance[2]. According to the Job Demands-Control Model [3] high job demands can be a contributing factor to job strain, due to employees using their physiological systems, displayed for example, through heart rate and their psychological systems, such as coping mechanisms, to meet these demands[4]. When these specific job demands stop, as occurs at the end of a working day, these systems that individuals were using to address these demands no longer have to be activated to such a great extent, which reduces workers’ job strain levels allowing recovery to take place[5].

Resources and recovery

According to Hobfoll’s (1998) Conservation of Resources Theory individuals seek to get, retain, and protect their resources; which could consist of objects or financial assets, as well as internal attributes (such as, personal characteristics or energies) [6]. When an individual experiences stress, this can threaten his/her resources, resulting in ill health and poor wellbeing. Individuals then need to acquire new resources and restore any lost resources to recover from this stress. Moreover, the day-to-day attempts at recovering from stress require the use of internal resources, such as energy or positive mood[7]. Another important aspect to consider when assessing the recovery process is Meijman and Mulder’s (1998) Effort-Recovery (E-R) model[8]. This model proposes that employees in choosing to work hard would invest considerable effort over the short-term that involves changes at the physiological, behavioural and subjective levels. This can be seen as a ‘cost’ to the individual, but when employees ‘step away’ from their respective tasks, as happens during a break or at the end of the working day, then this allows their psychobiological systems to return to normal and stabilise at baseline levels, thereby facilitating recovery. If recovery does not occur, such as through long working hours, then this can cause a decline in health and wellbeing; and requires compensatory effort, as well as the need for recovery to increase[9].

It is acknowledged that in general, work promotes increased physical as well as mental health and wellbeing, and conversely, that not working could lead to poorer physical and mental health and wellbeing[10]. Despite the benefits that work brings, workers need still to disengage from work, i.e., recover, in order to gain these. The recovery concept, as defined by Meijman and Mulder (1998), involves individuals restoring their personal systems that they used during a stressful experience to the pre-stressor levels[8]. Sonnentag (2007) describes the recovery process as one that is the opposite of the strain process, especially as it reduces negative mood as well as physiological strain indicators[7]. Recovery occurs during those periods when no new demands are experienced, comparable to what workers have experienced just prior to a break[8].However, without adequate resources, or when these are only limited, individuals may not be able to recover to adequate levels. When recovery is not accomplished before returning to work, more effort is needed in order to meet or cope with the job demands[11]. It is important to note that job demands by themselves will not have an adverse effect on a worker, especially when the worker is able to choose how and when those demands could be fulfilled[3]. However, excessive job demands with limited time for recovery could make workers more vulnerable to those work stressors that may lead to poorer health[12].

While dealing with any work or life events or challenges, the human body releases chemical mediators, such as catecholamines that increase heart rate and blood pressure. [12]. This includes coping with those job demands that are challenging but that in turn lead to learning and skill development[13] and therefore considered as ‘good work’, as it leads to a positive outcome. The release of these mediators is reduced when they are no longer needed, such as at the end of a work day, and in the context of work, it enables detachment and recovery to occur. Therefore, workers regardless of the type of job in which they are engaged, enjoyable or stressful, should detach and recover to increase their ability to work more efficiently and effectively at the start of a new work day.

One of the determinants of recovery is rumination, which is the constant thinking about issues when there should be no worthwhile reason to do so[14]. Rumination involves automatic and controlled processing, i.e. keeping unwanted but conscious thoughts; it reduces goal attainment, and is therefore counterproductive; and it could be a continuous action[15], playing constantly on individuals’ thought processes. Rumination tends to occur more under stressful work environments that may include high demands[14]. For example, workers may constantly either think about what they are required to do, and perhaps how, in order to complete the respective tasks. These intense thought processes would therefore not allow the individuals to detach from the job when they leave that environment[14].

Work versus non-work

After work, leisure activities start as individuals assume roles separate from their jobs. However, those who experience high levels of segmentation between their work/non-work domains (i.e. the ability to see the two as distinct) find it easier to discriminate between roles, and are, therefore, able to detach to a higher degree[16].Those workers with high levels of integration (i.e. they cannot easily separate the two domains) tend to blur the boundaries between the work/non-work role, and, therefore, find it harder to transition between the two roles: making detachment harder to achieve[16]. Workers’ abilities to achieve adequate levels of psychological segmentation/integration are not influenced by where the work takes place. For example, the assessment of a small sample of 14 highly skilled home workers showed that they were able to separate adequately their work/non-work boundaries[17]. Segmentation and integration do not have to be always major issues among home workers.


Measuring detachment and recovery

Detachment, recovery and rumination generally tend to be determined through self-report measures either through the completion of questionnaires or diary studies [14] [18] [19] [20]. Recent research has involved the use of longitudinal studies[21], which should lead to improved confirmation of the effects of these constructs in the workplace.

One of the self-report measures, the Recovery Experience questionnaire, developed by Sonnentag and colleagues[7], is increasingly being used. It consists of four dimensions: psychological detachment from work, relaxation, mastery, and control, and therefore ‘broadens’ the understanding of the concept.

  • Psychological detachment from work involves ‘removing’ oneself from the work environment by focusing on those non-work options that one is pursuing or wishes to pursue.
  • Relaxation involves leisure activities, such as walking and listening to music with an end result of restoring positive affect.
  • Mastery refers to taking part in challenging non-work activities, such as learning a new language or strenuous climbing of a hill or mountain that should allow total distraction from the job as well as facilitating learning opportunities.
  • Control involves having a choice in what can and could be done during leisure time[7].

It is expected that new measures would be developed and refined as the research in this area increases.

The impact on individuals and organisations

As recovery experiences help in unwinding from stress, they will contribute to psychological wellbeing [7] [22] as well as increase serenity, that state of feeling calm, relaxed and totally at ease[20]. Workers’ recovery is aided when they do leisure activities that are sociable, do not require a lot of effort, and are physically active[23]. Further, adequate recovery increases vigour in the morning and helps employees to stay engaged during the work day[23].

A study of 12, 095 Dutch workers found that the need for recovery was higher among some groups than others[24]. These included workers with higher psychological job demands when compared to those with lower job demands; men; older workers; those who completed primary school or lower vocational school as well as those who completed higher educational levels, rather than those who had attained an intermediate vocational level of education; and, those with a long-term disease.

Although there is limited information at the European and national levels about the impact of recovery after work, in the Netherlands, results from the Netherlands Working Conditions Survey[25], compared the responses from 2003 and 2005 to show a slight increase in the need to recover from the Dutch working population. As shown in Table 1, there were slight increases across all the questions, but the fatigue experienced by the respondents at the end of the day (Statement 2) showed the highest increase.

Dutch Employees Scores Recover Work.jpg

Source: EU-OSHA, 2009, p. 37 [26]

High detachment has been linked to higher levels of life satisfaction[27], as well as lower levels of emotional exhaustion[27]. A longitudinal study has confirmed the effect on emotional exhaustion; this was shown when the lack of psychological detachment from work during non-work time predicated an increase in emotional exhaustion one year later[21]. Further, the study showed that when psychological detachment was low with high job demands, then this increased psychosomatic complaints and led to a further decrease in engagement. [21]. The ability to detach has been found also to support individuals in dealing with workplace bullying and its adverse impact such as psychological strain[28].

Other effects of detachment show that if individuals are unable to detach from work, this can lead to increased fatigue [20][29]. Further, workers unable to detach have experienced high levels of emotional exhaustion and the need for recovery[30]. It is important to note that the ability to detach is influenced by having a high workload, experiencing emotional dissonance, and having spatial work/non-work boundaries[30].

In terms of the impact of rumination, it contributed to high job strain among a group of teachers[14]. It has been associated also with fatigue [29] and heightened reporting of physical symptoms among diverse professions[31], as well as anxiety [32]and depression among a group of university students[33].

While specific information and robust effects on the organisation have not been found, it can be proposed that the effects of inadequate recovery and detachment on organisations would include reduced performance and productivity. More specifically, an assessment of administrative employees found that individuals with low and high levels of detachment had lower levels of job performance, while those medium levels of detachment were able to achieve higher levels of job performance[27].

Strategies for recovery

The concepts of detachment and recovery continue to be researched, but very few strategies to address the issues have been proposed to date. The inability to detach or recover can lead to psychosocial risks such as work-related stress and fatigue and thereafter ill health. As such strategies to help organisations and individuals to address these issues are needed and thereby implement a prevention culture. One such strategy is to promote a strong [[Towards an occupational safety and health culture|safety culture (i.e., wherein health and safety are dominant characteristic of the corporate culture) [34].

Good practices to detach from work

Despite the research indicating the importance of psychological detachment from work, few examples of good practice, especially at the organisational level, were found. It is important that interventions are targeted at the organisational rather than the individual level, because addressing psychosocial risk by developing or changing the culture of the organisation has greater impact than focusing on individual coping strategies. Interventions at the individual level, to change behaviour or learn new ‘detachment’ strategies are also required, but these are best achieved with the support of the organisation.

Risk assessment, prevention, and protection

Good practice at the organisational level

It is essential that organisations develop good practice to aid employees in detaching from work elements/stressors during leisure (non-work) periods. For example:

  • Organisations should support employees in being unavailable during non-work time[27].
  • Organisations should schedule work demands so they do not impinge on employees’ non-work time[27].
  • Organisations should allow employees the time to transition between work and their non-work roles. This could involve the employee, at the start of the day, creating a list of work tasks that need to be done that day, thereby ensuring that their work role is ‘set’[27].
  • Supervisors should act as role models by not being available during non-work time and should not contact employees during this time[23].
  • The organisation should create a work climate in which working overtime is not the standard[23].

Good practice at the individual level

At the individual level, there are various strategies that workers can use, especially during their leisure time. Rumination could be reduced through distraction, disengagement from the goal and goal attainment[15], but it must be acknowledged that it may not be possible to stop the ruminative behaviour totally[15]. Distraction could include leisure activities, such as sport, gardening, other hobbies or engagement in the community, as well as interacting with family or friends[23].

The risk assessment process

There is limited information that specifically addresses detachment and recovery after work at an organisational level; despite this, it should be treated as part of the risk management process. As required by the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC[35], any risk to the safety and health of workers that may or does occur at the workplace must be assessed and includes [[Psychosocial risks and workers health|psychosocial risks]. The aim of the risk assessment is to plan and implement appropriate actions to eliminate, prevent or reduce those risks, with a priority given to organisational measures, and when necessary, individual measures.

The risk assessment process can be broken down into a series of steps.

  • Plan your assessment in consultation with the workforce.
  • Identify the hazards.
  • Decide who may be harmed, how, and where.
  • Assess the level of risk and decide on action.
  • Take action to eliminate or reduce the risk.
  • Monitor and review the actions.

Managing psychosocial risks efficiently and creating a good psychosocial work environment will promote workers’ health, making it easier for them to take appropriate rest after work. Implementing interventions on work-related stress could highlight the need for psychological detachment and recovery after work, and will contribute additionally to creating a prevention culture in an organisation.

Conclusions

Detachment and recovery are two concepts that are explicitly linked. In order to ‘recover’ from the stressors and strains of the work environment, it is essential that workers ‘detach’ from these when away from work, whenever this may occur, such as: during evenings, weekends, days away from the workplace or during vacation leave. The increasingly 24-hour society, with non-stop media and technology ensures that for many workers, regardless of industry, they have 24/7 connections to the workplace; this has made it more challenging for workers to completely remove themselves from the work environment. However, to maintain health and wellbeing, and thereby effective productivity and performance, workers need to have down time. The evidence-base is increasing for these concepts and it is expected that more strategies and/ or interventions shall be developed.

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Links for further reading

Flaxman, P. E. & Söderberg, M. (2011). Employee Recovery across the Working Week. The Role of Perfectionism and Evening Leisure Experiences. Paper presented at the 2nd Biennial Institute of Work Psychology Conference on Work, Well-being and Performance, Sheffield, June 29 - July 2010. Available at: [5]

Kinnunen, U. & Mauno, S., Job insecurity, recovery experiences and well-being at work: Recovery Experiences as Moderators, 2011. Paper presented at the 4th International Conference on Unemployment, Job Insecurity and Health. From Unemployment to Sustainable Participation in Work - Research, Interventions and Policies, Hanasaari Cultural Center, Espoo, Finland, September 21-23, 2011. Available at: [6]

Park, Y. (2013). Mental break: Work-life balance needed for recovery from job stress, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Retrieved 26 April 2013, from: [7]