Why Holidays are for Wimps

I've just returned from the 10th Organisational Psychology Conference in Perth. A couple of hundred psychologists from around the world came together to share some fascinating research on improving the performance and satisfaction of people at work. A major theme was work-life balance. Because we know work stress is a significant challenge for many franchisees and franchisor executives, I thought I'd share some insights from the conference on this topic.

One workshop I attended was with Professor Sonnentag, a quietly spoken academic from Germany’s University of Mannheim, who has a genuine interest in helping people create a better life. She has spent much of her career researching how people recover from stressful work, including the contribution that holidays make to reducing stress. One of her consistent findings is that, as a technique for reducing stress, holidays are ineffective. If your work is stressful and you have a relaxing holiday, the positive effects are likely to last two weeks, four at best, after which you are likely to be back to where you started. She concludes, when it comes to reducing stress, holidays provide hope but not a lot else!

The secret to effective recovery

That's not to say holidays don't fulfil other functions, like a chance to hang out with your family and have some fun. Just don't expect them to solve your work stress problems. On the other hand, Professor Sonnentag has found the most effective approach to managing a stressful job is to build in daily or weekly recovery habits as part of a regular routine. And she has discovered the most effective recovery habit is "psychological detachment", defined as being able to switch off and refrain from work related thoughts. This is because we often carry the emotional load from stressful work around with us, even when we're not there.

Psychological detachment involves consciously shifting from a work mindset by using transition rituals at the end of the day such as changing clothes, closing down the computer or putting away the phone. Then doing an activity which is both enjoyable and mentally challenging. This could be playing with your kids, gardening, cooking or a DIY hobby. If physical exercise is your thing, put your mind into it, don't continue to watch or listen to work related material. I find playing my guitar a perfect way to get absorbed in something creative and enjoyable. By the way, transition rituals are especially useful if you've had a particularly negative day.

Recovery periods can also be built into your work day. Have a proper break over lunch rather than eating at the computer. Go for a walk in a natural environment a few times a day. Create a work-free space where you can hang out or play. Short 15 minute power naps are also a great way to recharge.

Be careful what you take to bed with you

Good quality sleep is important for recovery. In particular don't go to sleep with stressful, work related thoughts on your mind. The thoughts we take to bed with us are the best predictor of how we will feel in the morning, and how we wake up sets the tone for the rest of the day. For this reason working on the computer or doing emails last thing at night is not recommended. Neither is talking business in bed. Instead do some positive reflection on what aspects of the day you felt good about. A proven technique to get a better night's sleep is to ask yourself or your partner "What went well today and why?"

In summary, don't live under the illusion that a good holiday is going to solve your stress issues. Make it your business to have regular daily and weekly recovery breaks. I'll cover some other findings from the psychology conference in future tips.

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