Do something that makes you forget your work completely - then you can relax

Daantje Derks

Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Daantje Derks researches recovery from work. How do people get stressed, but most of all: how do they get rid of it? And how can one actually relax after a day of working from home?

How does your research fit in with this COVID-situation?

"My research is about people who have voluntarily chosen to work from home, and how dependent they are on digital media. The situation at this moment is that everyone is forced to work from home, even if you may not have the digital means to do so at all."

Do you think work pressure increases because of this situation?

"The disadvantage of working from home is that the boundaries between your work and private life are blurring. I'm lucky to have a quite large house with my own office. Yet I do experience a greater work pressure. For example, it now takes a lot more energy to get to know new students and to build a relationship with them. If you only see them online, it really takes more time and more sessions than when you sit together in a classroom and look at each other. In addition, I often finish things in the evenings, or on the weekends - just like many colleagues, I believe. If all the days are the same, and you don't have a real weekend or a vacation, there's never a time when you say, 'I'm done now, I'm off'."

Is that important?

"The research on recovery from work shows that work pressure in itself is not bad, as long as you have time in the evenings, weekends or vacations to recover from it. That is to say that you're doing things that make you really forget your work completely. At the moment that is almost impossible, because a lot of things we were used to do in the evenings or weekends are not allowed."

"Stress and adrenaline are not just bad, you need them to perform. But the condition is that you recover from them"

What exactly do the theories on recovery state?

"Stress and adrenaline aren't just bad, you need them to perform. But the condition is that you recover from them. If you’re stressed, your heart rate increases. That's fine, but you want the heart rate to return to normal after an effort. If you are still busy at work in the evening, your heart rate does not return to normal at rest. Even so it's not a bad thing when it happens sometimes. But if you don't recover well for weeks or months, you’ll end up in a kind of chronic stressful situation. You sleep less well, you get fatigue or burn-out complaints, you end up in a negative spiral.

The only exception in the research was with creative tasks, for these it is sometimes good to keep on puzzling in the evening."

And what's the trick, what's the best way to relax?

"What works best is very different for everyone. It can be watching Netflix series or playing computer games for an entire evening - you recover if you completely forget your work in the process. I myself go for an hour's walk every day. Sometimes together with someone, then we make an agreement: we don't talk about work. If you go to the gym but you keep thinking about your work, you still don't recover.

Getting away from work is not that easy. You are probably familiar with the phenomenon that if you go on vacation after you've been very busy, it takes a few days before you are in vacation mode. And if you keep answering your emails on vacation every day, you'll never reach that point of recovery. 

I think you see big differences in this period between people who can recover well from working from home, and people who can't let go of their work. This skill of being able to relax will become more and more important in the future. Work will never be the same, an office will become more of a meeting place than a place where you always sit."

More information

• "We want everyone who works for Erasmus University to be able to get the best out of themselves". Read here the interview with Dr. Roos Schelvis about work pressure.
• Prof. Dr. Laura den Dulk and policy adviser Michelle Verheij about the pros and cons of working from home.
• For EUR employees there is a platform about working from home.

Related content
Prof. Dr. Arnold Bakker conducts research about burnout and work engagement. What makes employees stressed or enthusiastic about their work?
Prof. Dr. Laura den Dulk and HR policy officer ‘blended working’ Michelle Verheij about the pros and cons of working from home, now and after corona.

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