After work is done: Psychological perspectives
on recovery from work
Fred R. H. Zijlstra
Department of Psychology, School of Human Sciences, University of Surrey,
Work and Organizational Psychology, Department of Psychology, University
of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany
Research on the relation between work and health has primarily focused on
the effects of psychosocial characteristics of the job (i.e., autonomy,
psychological demands) on psychological well-being and other health-
related outcomes. However, in the last decade the awareness has risen that
an integral part of a healthy life is an adequate balance between work and
private life (work–life balance, work-family balance; cf. Jones, Burke, &
Westman, 2005). Part of a healthy life style is recovering from the daily
strains. The topic of recovery from work has not received much scientific
attention, and consequently the process of recovery is not yet well
understood (for reviews, cf. Eden, 2001a, 2001b). With this special issue
we want to contribute to the understanding of the process of recovery, and
we hope that this issue will help to put this topic on the research agenda.
This special issue presents a selection of articles that look into different
aspects related to recovery, such as aspects that are work-related and aspects
that are related to the time after work. In this introduction we will outline
some background information that is needed to position the concept of
Correspondence should be addressed to Professor Fred R. H. Zijlstra, Faculty of
Psychology, Maastricht University, P.O. Box 616, NL 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands.
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF WORK AND
2006, 15 (2), 129–138
? 2006 Psychology Press Ltd
recovery, and to highlight the psychological perspectives on recovery. First,
we will discuss the relation of recovery with fatigue, and then we will present
the ‘‘cycle of work and rest’’. Subsequently, we will address the relationship
between work characteristics and recovery and will describe the relevance of
leisure and sleep.
FATIGUE AND RECOVERY
Intuitively it is evident that after a period of work people need some rest to
recover. During the working day people are confronted with all kind of
demands, ranging from physical and cognitive to emotional demands.
Dealing with these demands requires physical work, attention, and
concentration, in short expending physical and/or mental energy. Energy
expenditure is what makes people feel fatigued by the end of the working
day because their resources are depleted, both in energetic and emotional
respect (cf. Meijman, Mulder, & van Dormolen, 1992). These feelings of
fatigue require people to take a rest in order to recuperate from their effort
investments and to allow their resources to be replenished. This process of
replenishing resources is usually indicated as ‘‘recovery’’. Recovery is
important because it allows people to prepare and be ready for new
challenges (i.e., another day at work), and it will prevent accumulation of
fatigue that ultimately can lead to serious health consequences.
From a conceptual point of view, recovery should be seen as a process
that allows us to replenish our resources. In essence this is what we do when
we take a rest or go to sleep. The implication of taking a rest is that one is
(temporary) relieved of the demands, and this relief will allow to replenish
the resources that have been used. The anticipated effect of the recovery
process is reduction of fatigue. In physiological sense this implies that the
organism is allowed to ‘‘unwind’’, which actually means that the arousal
level (as indicated by adrenaline excretion rate and heart rate) is allowed to
return to a ‘‘baseline level’’ again (Craig & Cooper, 1992). The psychological
effects to be anticipated are that people feel capable and ready to continue
with the current demands or to meet new demands. A common expression
referring to this effect is ‘‘charging the batteries’’. This means that work and
rest need to alternate and should constitute a ‘‘cycle of work and rest’’.
However, for various reasons it is not always feasible to take a rest, thus
other options need to be explored. In many cases changing activities has a
similar effect as taking a rest, because a change in activities is often
accompanied by a change in demands (e.g., alternating physical activities
with mental activities). As a consequence different resources are used (e.g.,
muscles vs. ‘‘brain power’’). In fact this is what people actually do: after
work they engage in various types of activities, varying from household
activities and childcare to sports and leisure.
ZIJLSTRA AND SONNENTAG
CYCLE OF WORK AND REST
The ‘‘cycle of work and rest’’ is primarily determined by the working times.
While at work people are not supposed to rest; resting is what they should do
in their ‘‘own time’’. The lunch and coffee/tea breaks are illustrations of this:
Employers usually do not pay salary over lunch breaks. Working times are
therefore important; they specify when people have to be at work, and when
they are ‘‘free to go’’. The time ‘‘after work’’ traditionally is the time in which
principle repeats itself every day, and therefore is referred as the ‘‘cycle of
work and rest’’. However, the time after work is not only for recovery. Many
people have commitments and duties after work and are not entirely free to
spend their time. Some of these commitments and duties will place additional
demands upon people and some of these demands will be similar to work
demands, while other activities have entirely different demands. The question
on top of the work demands or do they compensate for the work demands?
Already in the late 1970s, Piotrkowsky (1978) reported that some workers
were just too drained by physical tiredness or by working in boring jobs that
things have changed over the last decades, such as the fact that work
nowadays is primarily mentally demanding rather than physically demanding
(Zijlstra, Schalk, & Roe, 1996), yet the number of people complaining about
work pressure and fatigue is still high (Paoli & Merllie ´ , 2001). Paoli and
Merllie ´ reported on a survey among the working population in Europe. Their
results indicate that more than half of the working population in Europe
complained about having to work under pressure (i.e., either working at high
speed,or havingto meettightdeadlines).Occupationallyinducedfatigue,i.e.,
the short-term effect of a working day, is a common complaint, affecting
about 25–33% of the working population in the Netherlands (Bultmann et
al., 2002). The fatigue people experience may have an effect on what kind of
are too tired for certain activities or initiatives and thus stay at home and
resort to a passive type of leisure (i.e., watching television).
Working times are not only important in terms of work and rest, but they
are one of the first and most important aspects of work organisation: It
synchronizes people’s presence and therefore facilitates any form of
organizing and cooperation. In particular since the industrial revolution,
when mass-production in factory plants started, the regulation of working
times has become an issue. One of the consequences of regulated working
times is that people have less influence over the decisions of when to work
and when to take a break—nowadays the majority of employees have no
flexibility, or decision authority, with respect to their working times. In
addition, people sometimes have to work extra hours, and this may affect
the cycle of work and rest.
Recent technological developments have had an impact on working times.
Internet and mobile communication facilities allow people to work from
wherever they want, and whenever they choose to work. This development
has introduced the phenomenon of ‘‘tele-homework’’ and ‘‘distance work’’,
which in fact has decreased the importance of working times (Roe et al.,
1994). Working late in the evening necessarily reduces the opportunity for
recovery. Rau and Triemer (2004) found that people who regularly worked
overtime had more sleep problems than those who worked regular hours.
However, people in that study worked in their official work place and not at
home. Studies on (tele-)homework suggest that the boundaries between work
andprivatelifetendto diminish(Ahrentzen, 1990),andthatasaresultpeople
find themselves working late night. Some people complain that it feels as if
they are never finished. So, from a recovery point of view this seems to have
undesirable consequences; it evidently affects the daily work–rest cycle.
Apparently the boundaries between work and home have an important
psychological function: They help people to create a psychological distance
between work and themselves, which is necessary to unwind. When these
distance themselves from the demands being imposed upon them, and
therefore will have difficulties disengaging themselves from work (see
Yet there are many interesting questions related to the cycle of work and
rest, and thus to the topic of recovery, such as ‘‘what is the optimum period
for work and for rest?’’, ‘‘what factors facilitate recovery?’’, ‘‘how does
recovery impact on subsequent work behaviour’’? ‘‘How should jobs be
designed so that recovery is facilitated?’’, ‘‘What is the role of sleep with
respect to recovery from work’’? And more questions could be formulated.
WORK CHARACTERISTICS AND RECOVERY
As indicated above working times and thus the length of the working day
jobitselfalsoappearto haveaneffectonrecovery.The extenttowhichpeople
can ‘‘switch off’’ from work in the evening seems to be important. Studies
intensive working conditions have more difficulties in unwinding during the
evening compared to people who do similar work but face less intensive
conditions. Furthermore, the level of autonomy at work is important because
it allows people to regulate their own work speed (Jackson, Wall, Martin, &
Davids, 1993), and therefore also their own level of effort investment (cf.
ZIJLSTRA AND SONNENTAG
Zijlstra, 1993; Zijlstra, Roe, Leonova, & Krediet, 1999). In general one could
high levels of responsibility or high work pressure, it can cause a feeling of
strain, which in itself leads to a greater need for recovery (Sluiter, van-der-
Beek, & Frings-Dresen, 1999), but may also make it more difficult for
individualsto unwind afterwork (Sonnentag& Bayer, 2005).This means that
the nature of the working day has an effect on the type of activities people
engage in after work. Optimal recovery from work is dependent on the
pursue (Sonnentag, 2001; Sonnentag & Zijlstra, 2006).
LEISURE AND RECOVERY
Most people in our society consider work to be the dominant activity and
leisure as being trivial. This view on work and leisure is a consequence of
what is called the Puritan (or Protestant) work ethic, in which work is
glorified and leisure is devalued. In such situations leisure becomes a derivate
of work, solely used for recuperation and distraction (Hunnicut, 1988).
However, the essence of leisure is ‘‘perceived freedom and intrinsic
motivation’’ to engage in activities (Iso-Ahola, 1980). This view is in strong
contrast to most work situations, where people’s activities are usually
externally prescribed and regulated, and perceived as an obligatory duty. At
work people have a contractual obligation to be present and perform
particular activities. Also, other activities that people engage in during ‘‘after
work time’’ are not always intrinsically motivated, but people do engage in
these activities out of their free will; there is no contractual obligation.
Some people see the merits of leisure in its own right (Iso-Ahola, 1997).
Leisure activities can, like work, have beneficial effects on mental health and
personality development (see also Rau, 2006 this issue). In societies that do
not value leisure, people are not able to reconcile work and family, have
little time for cultivating hobbies, and find it difficult to engage in civic
activities that would nourish a democratic society. Also from a psycholo-
gical perspective it would be better if people engaged in activities in which
they sought challenges and tried to match them with their skills. Evidently
this also applies to work: Optimal experiences correlate positively with
mental health (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
However, in our society leisure is used as an ‘‘escape’’ from work.
‘‘Escapism’’ in this respect means that people do not seek meaningful leisure
activities to escape from everyday strains and problems. Such behaviour is
feed into apathy and depression. From this perspective is it rather worrisome
that watching television seems to be the dominant activity for many people in
their ‘‘after work time’’. Schor (1991) referred to this as part of the ‘‘work-
spend-work-spend’’ mentality that seems to be prevalent in our society.
SLEEP AND RECOVERY
Sleep plays a very important role in the process of recovery. It is assumed that
sleep must be continuous in order to be restorative (Walsh & Lindeblom,
2000). Sleep loss and sleep disturbance can lead to mood changes, fatigue,
and performance decrement and in extreme cases even to immune function
impairment (Harrison & Horne, 1999). Even moderate sleep loss is
associated with deficits in alertness and performance (A˚kerstedt, Knutsson
et al., 2002; Dinges et al., 1997). Lack of sleep or poor quality of sleep is also
associated with absenteeism, reduced productivity, and an increased risk of
fatigue-related accidents (A˚kerstedt, Fredlund et al., 2002; Stoller, 1994).
Lack of sleep or disrupted sleep can result in not feeling refreshed the in the
morning. When people are not refreshed this suggests that they haven’t
completely recovered, and are not in an optimal condition to meet new
demands and challenges. Work will then cost extra effort (Zijlstra, 1993). The
implication is that lack of recovery can lead to accumulation of fatigue and
strain and ultimately can cause health problems.
Most studies in the domain of work and health have neglected the area of
sleep. This is surprising considering the association between high work
demands and sleep disturbance (A˚kerstedt, Knutsson et al., 2002; Cropley,
Steptoe, & Joekes, 1999). However, the mechanisms by which occupational
stress is associated with sleep disturbance are not yet fully understood. One
possibility may be that people in stressful jobs are very active during the
evening and therefore are too physiologically aroused at bedtime what causes
difficulties in falling asleep. They need to ‘‘unwind’’ first. Another possibility
is that people may have difficulties in ‘‘switching off’’ from work-related
issues and thoughts at bedtime, and thus still ruminate about the problems at
work and thus have difficulties in falling asleep. Harvey (2000) showed that
presleep cognition affects sleep quality, and manipulations of cognitive
arousal before sleep leads to longer sleep latencies (Gross & Borkovec, 1982).
In particular when people have problems to deal with at work or when
they experience conflicts at work, people may have ruminative thoughts,
which make it difficult to switch off from work. A recent survey on sleep
behaviour found that about 17% of a representative sample of the working
population in the UK reported that they have sleeping problems caused by
worrying about their work (Groeger, Zijlstra, & Dijk, 2004). Studies have
shown that a failure to unwind after work leads to sleep complaints, and
consequently makes people feel not-refreshed the next morning (Meijman
et al., 1992; Sluiter et al., 1999). Thus, sleep problems are associated with
fatigue, and can have an impact on recovery.
ZIJLSTRA AND SONNENTAG
Health and well-being are related to both people’s work and leisure
activities. Mental health problems (e.g., psychological complaints such as
burnout, depressive feelings, and stress-related complaints) are currently the
fastest-growing category mentioned among long term absentees from work,
indicating that this is a serious problem. As individuals’ energetic resources
are not infinite, they have to recover form time to time.
Although there is increasing evidence that the process of recovery is
important for a healthy and balanced life (cf. Gump & Matthews, 2000), this
process has not yet received the scientific attention it deserves. A few studies
have looked into the effects of holidays and vacations (Fritz & Sonnentag, in
press; Strauss-Blasche, Muhry, Lehofer, Moser, & Markl, 2004; Westman &
Eden, 1997; Westman & Etzion, 2001). These studies have indicated that
vacations have a beneficial effect on well-being; however, these effects are
usually short lived. A more structural solution is desirable, and this requires a
better understanding of the process of recovery. It is intuitively clear that
sleep is important for recovery, although the exact mechanisms and processes
in this respect are not entirely clear yet. There are indications that day time
activities also have an effect on recovery. The question is whether daytime
activities affect recovery because they affect people’s sleep or whether they
have an effect in their own right. But there are more questions that need to be
answered, such as ‘‘what are the determinants of optimal recovery?’’ and
‘‘how do activities during the day affect the recovery process?’’
This issue presents five articles that address various aspects related to
recovery. One important topic refers to the extent to which job
characteristics are associated with recovery. The study by Taris and
colleagues focuses on the aspects of working times and deals with the
question whether contract working time and overtime may affect the
opportunities for recovery, and thus may reduce recovery. Analyses showed
that in a sample of managers contract working hours were negatively related
to exhaustion. Overtime was positively related to work enjoyment, but also
to time-based work home interference.
Cropley and colleagues address the issue of the association between job
strain and sleep quality. The article provides evidence that people working in
high strain jobs need longer to unwind after work and ruminate more about
work-related issues. The study also demonstrates that there is a positive
association between high strain jobs and sleeping problems.
The article by Rau reports findings from a study that included
physiological data. The study provided evidence that job incumbents whose
jobs are well-designed and who have opportunities to develop themselves
are better off not only in terms of mental health, but also in terms of
recovery. Analyses showed that high learning opportunities—as assessed by
behavioural data—were positively related to a pronounced decline of heart
rate and blood pressure during the night. Such a decline is a strong indicator
for successful cardiovascular recovery.
The article by Sonnentag and Kruel presents a study that examined
the relation between job stressors and people’s ability to switch off after
work. Specifically, the study showed that teachers experiencing a high
workload had more difficulties ‘‘switching off’’ from work during the
evening. Interestingly, this relationship is not only based on self-report
data but is also reflected in observations provided by family members.
Together the articles by Cropley and colleagues, Rau, as well as Son-
nentag and Kruel suggest that work characteristics encountered during the
day extends its effect during the after-work period and affects the recovery
The article by Rook and Zijlstra presents a study on the weekly pattern of
fatigue and sleep quality, and examines the contribution of various activities
towards recovery. Sport activities turned out to be negatively associated
with fatigue. Interesting to note is that people apparently seem to anticipate
the strain of the working week, given the fact that the lowest sleep quality is
found on Monday morning. This finding suggests that recovery is a highly
complex process in which also anticipatory and expectation processes play
an important role (Eden, 2001b).
Thus, as a whole the studies present a complex picture of work and
recovery. Important factors that potentially impact on recovery and
opportunities for recovery include workload as well as aspects of job
control and learning requirements. Recovery itself is reflected in psycholo-
gical detachment from work, low fatigue, as well as sleep and decrease in
physiological parameters during the night.
Recovery from work is an important topic. Articles in this issue illustrate
that when work and organizational psychologists want to learn more about
people’s well-being they also need to look at ‘‘after-work time’’. This special
issue certainly does not pretend to answer all the questions that have been
formulated, but we do hope that it stimulates further investigations on this
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