Recovery after work in times of telework

A practical approach based on research. - A hands-on plan written by PhD student Philippe Sterkens.

Part of being successful and happy consists of having enough energy to work. To remain energized in both the physical and psychological sense of the word, we need to recover from work during our spare time. However, our spare time is threatened by the current situation.  Besides additional work stress, COVID-19 is also crippling our leisure activities, and thus the recovery, of many. Is it possible to (re)learn what true recovery looks like? Fortunately, we can! In fact, the scientific literature describes the ingredients of optimal recovery. Individual appreciation of these ‘recovery ingredients’ may differ, but everyone may select preferred ingredients to write an effective 'recovery recipe'.

1. Relaxation

A first, logical, element of successful recovery is relaxation, and by relaxation we mean a state of reduced arousal, and (mild) positive feelings. Lying down in a bed or on a sofa can certainly be relaxing, but there are so many other - and sometimes more effective - ways of attaining a state of relaxation.

More specifically:

  • One can simply relax by doing light efforts such as going for a walk in nature or playing with the kids outside.
  • In addition, ‘conscious’ relaxation can be achieved through simple breathing techniques or more specialized techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation.

2. Psychological detachment (from work)

We could explore all the Flanders’ forests or lie down for hours, but when we think of work during these attempts to relax, we recover sub-optimally. Therefore, a second ingredient of successful recovery is psychological disengagement from work. Psychological detachment goes far beyond 'not completing work-related tasks'. It also means that we no longer answer work-related calls, or that we no longer even think about work-related problems and opportunities.

More specifically:

  • Try to create “signals” for the end of the working day. With teleworking, the end of the working day is much more vague. In order to mentally distance oneself from work, one can install a fixed 'rite of passage'. A routine such as: physically closing the laptop, putting away materials, turning off smartphone notifications and having a chat with housemates or friends, can already form a nice ritual.
  • Consciously shifting your attention. When it's hard to stop thinking about work, you can consciously try to distract yourself for a while. You can actively shift your attention to, for instance, crossword puzzles or a sudoku.
  • An alternative option is mindfulness, which involves focusing on what is happening in the present (for example, your eye movements while reading this text) without engaging in subsequent thoughts or judgement. A popular tool with a free beginner's course to try out mindfulness is Headspace[PS1] . UGent also offers its employees free training on mindfulness.

3. Mastery experiences

Is recovery optimal when we are (i) in an absolute state of relaxation (i) and (ii) no longer thinks about work? Not necessarily. A third ingredient for optimal recovery consists of 'mastery experiences'. In concrete terms, these are activities that provide challenging (learning) opportunities in other life domains than work. Typical examples of challenges and learning experiences are hobbies like practicing sports.

More specifically:

  • It is often a matter of removing barriers to actually getting started with mastery experiences. When creating mastery experiences, you might want to consider the following questions : (i) what activities have been fulfilling challenges for you, (ii) what has been stopping you from starting these activities and (iii) how can you solve this problem? For example: after work, we sometimes find it difficult to take action. However, the stronger your feelings of resistance towards (for example) practicing sport after work, the stronger the actual need is. A useful tip is to prepare recovery activities beforehand. For example, in the morning one could already prepare the running outfit and bottle of water and put it on the kitchen table.

4. Control

Lastly, will we recover optimally if we oblige everyone to (i) relax in the evenings, (ii) quit thinking about work and (iii) transform themselves into skilled potters or athletes? Not necessarily, a final ingredient for successful recovery is to foster feelings of control over how we spend our spare time.

More specifically:

  • Many have social and domestic obligations outside of work hours. These are not necessarily limiting factors in recovery, but they do take away some of our control.
  • One way to regain an experience of control is by practicing time management. Instead of allowing obligations to overwhelm you, you could also try to organize your spare time. Perhaps you could experiment with pre-scheduled (!) blocks of time in your diary during which you don’t have to do a single thing!

Time to get started!

Summarized, recovering from work involves so much more than simply 'not working'. How we exactly create recovery experience is an individual matter (and Covid-19 limits the options available), but with these four tools (i.e. relaxation, psychological detachment, mastery experiences and control) everyone can start to create effective recovery experiences.

Work hard, recover (smart)er.


Based on:

Almen, N., Lisspers, J., Öst, L. G., & Sundin, Ö. (2020). Behavioral stress recovery management intervention for people with high levels of perceived stress: A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(2), 183.

Hahn, V. C., Binnewies, C., Sonnentag, S., & Mojza, E. J. (2011). Learning how to recover from job stress: effects of a recovery training program on recovery, recovery-related self-efficacy, and well-being. Journal of occupational health psychology, 16(2), 202.