Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Alyson Meister, Bonnie Hayden Cheng, Nele Dael, and Franciska Krings, discuss the "recovery paradox," a situation where people are least able to address burnout when their bodies and minds need it most, and offer five research-based strategies for recovering from stress at work.
Alyson Meister is a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. Bonnie Hayden Cheng is an associate professor and MBA program director at HKU Business School, University of Hong Kong, chief resilience officer of Human at Work, and a scientific advisor of OneMind at Work. Nele Dael is a senior behavior scientist studying emotion, personality, and social skills in organizational contexts. And Franciska Krings is a professor of organizational behavior at HEC Lausanne, University of Lausanne.
Infographic: How to be a less-stressed leader
The 'recovery paradox'
Research suggests that when people's bodies and minds need to recover and reset the most, they are the least likely to be able to do something about it.
For instance, when work is demanding and overwhelming, people often revert to a negative cycle of working more and taking fewer breaks. When going through a stressful time, people are also less likely to eat healthily, even though adequate nutrition and hydration are vital to restoring 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," the authors write.
To overcome the "recovery paradox," the authors say, "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."
5 ways to recover from work-related stress
1. Detach from your 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," an orthopedic surgeon said in an executive class on stress management.
Whatever someone's preferred recovery activity is, the authors note that it is important to mentally disconnect or "switch off" any thoughts related to stressors.
"Workday stress accumulates throughout the day, meaning that we ruminate about work well into the evening," they write. "You may be physically present at an exercise class, but your mind is replaying the events of an earlier client meeting."
Research suggests that thinking about work diminishes one's ability to recover from it—even the presence of a mobile phone can be a distraction, leaving people unable to truly 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," the authors write.
To detach from your stressors, the authors suggest establishing a set time each day when you can devote your full attention to a non-work-related activity.
2. Take micro-breaks throughout the workday
While many assume that recovery occurs after work or during a long vacation, short breaks of around 10 minutes taken throughout the workday are surprisingly effective in recovering from daily work stressors, the authors write.
"It's important to resist the urge to push through the day assuming that it will be easier to recover later, or to 'save up' your recovery for the weekend or even for that holiday that's still months ahead," they caution.
To boost your recovery, the authors suggest creating a recovery plan that can be implemented every day, with micro-breaks that can be scheduled into a busy workflow.
3. Choose a recovery activity preference
Not being able to choose your own recovery activities can sometimes do more harm than good, the authors write. For instance, one study showed that when workers chose to chat with coworkers over a lunch break, they were able to boost their stress recovery. However, when workers felt pressured to socialize during their lunch break, their energy was highly depleted at the end of the day.
"In sum, be mindful about how you use your lunch breaks," the authors advise. "If you feel pressured to socialize or continue working, talk to your manager about how you can get more autonomy over how you schedule and use your break. Then, spend those free slots doing recovery activities that you prefer."
4. Emphasize high-effort recovery activities
Effortful activities, or "mastery experiences" that demand high levels of dedication, focus, and time, can have a significant impact on recovery.
"While it seems counterintuitive that further drawing on these resources during non-work periods will benefit your recovery, mastery experiences such as pursuing a hobby (learning a new language, learning to play the violin, volunteering, etc.) helps you generate new skills and replenishes depleted resources that can be applied back to your work, thereby approaching recovery from a different, productive, angle," the authors write.
5. Create an environment that fosters optimal recovery
According to the authors, an "underrated, critical element of recovery is your surrounding environment."
Research on direct exposure to nature—like walking through a park on your lunch break--suggests that the practice can boost stress recovery in just 10 minutes.
In addition, being exposed to nature at work positively contributes to well-being and decreases the likelihood of burnout.
Notably, "[e]xposure to daylight and having a window view or indoor greenery at the workplace have been shown to have a positive impact on your sleep quality, perceived stress, and overall health," the authors write. Even indirect exposure to nature—like looking at nature on a screen—can provide benefits for recovery.
"In a nutshell, getting some nature into your workplace makes you more happy and energized at work," the authors write. (Meister et al., Harvard Business Review, 7/5)