The long read: The power of detachment and recovery from work overload

Looking for evidence-based ways to recharge your emotional, physical, and cognitive batteries while increasing performance? Dr Kenneth Nowack has just written a great piece for TJ.

Do you feel as if you have been burning the midnight oil during COVID-19 and working even harder and longer than ever? Have you felt stretched, tired, and exhausted trying to adjust to the changing landscape of work? If so, you might not be alone.

Despite several months of acclimatising to a new reality and societal upheaval spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, globally people are struggling to cope with the disruptions it has caused and as a result a perception of increased work pressure and conflict between work and family responsibilities.

In the U.K., 49.6% of people reported increased anxiety and loneliness (more than one in five said that their work had been affected by being asked to work from home and they were finding working from home difficult). Nearly 8 in 10 American adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life.

And, two in three adults (67%) say they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic. 

The three types of workaholics

A 2011 study by IIlona van Beek and colleagues from the Department of Work and Organisational Psychology at Utrecht analysed 1,246 workers in the 40 standard tests used to measure engagement, workaholism, motivation and burnout (those ‘blah’ feelings that make the day drag and make workers depressed).

Whether you are passionate about your work or not, those who work the longest hours are at risk for emotional exhaustion and an inability to rebound in the face of work and life stress.

Participants also reported their typical working hours in a week. The researchers identified three different types of hard workers in addition to a separate group of ‘slackers’, defined as non-workaholic and non-engaged:

  1. Workaholics: These individuals work long hours and are motivated more by external, rather than intrinsic, rewards with blurred boundaries between non-work and work hours.
  2. Engaged Talent: These individuals are loyal, good organisational citizens, and generally hardworking but do not necessarily consider themselves to be ‘workaholics’ and can define boundaries between work, family, and home.
  3. Engaged Workaholics: These individuals work extremely hard out of sheer enjoyment and passion for the job, tasks, assignments they are involved in and view the ‘always on’ nature of technology, work, and family requirements as energising, rather than, draining.

The engaged workaholics spent the most time on work-related tasks and activities but unlike workaholic employees, engaged workaholics did not experience the highest levels of burnout, suggesting that high engagement may buffer the negative consequences of workaholism. 

The researchers believe that classic workaholics are ‘pushed’ to their work, while engaged workaholics are ‘pulled’. In general, work hours are not related to healthy issues but workaholism is.

These hard working, achievement-oriented Type As love what they do and constantly deploy their signature strengths. As a result, they dodge some of the deleterious health and fatigue repercussions that disengaged talent typically experience such as high stress, job burnout, absenteeism, less job satisfaction. and poor physical health.

The main finding of this study is that workaholism and work engagement are largely independent concepts and loving what you do can help to mitigate some of the risk over constant obsession with it.

Women and work overload

The boundaries between working at home and other family responsibilities, among other factors, can make it feel as if we have all turned into Type A workaholics – working longer and harder without the ability to easily detach and recover. 


Several recent research studies during the COVID-19 pandemic find that women have been disproportionately affected by an increased workload, lifestyle disruptions, and impacts on daily life, especially women with children.

Recently, I did an analysis of a random selection of 345 working men and 510 women in diverse industries and job levels exploring the relationship between validated measures of work-life stress, Type A behaviour (driven, impatient and achievement oriented style) and cognitive hardiness (optimistic disposition; viewing change as a challenge; having an internal locus of control; high self-efficacy; and committed to work and life activities, rather than, being disengaged). In analyses from a large health database, I discovered three outcomes:

  1. Women reported significantly higher levels of overall work and life stress relative to their male counterparts.
  2. Type A women (and men) who were also high on hardiness reported significantly less work and life stress.
  3. The highest levels of stress were reported by Type A women who also scored low on hardiness. Women who are highly competitive, driven, and impatient are most likely to experience a high level of stress when they feel less control over work and life activities and view change as a threat rather than a challenge.

Workaholic strategies to detach and recover

Whether you are passionate about your work or not, those who work the longest hours are at risk of emotional exhaustion and an inability to rebound in the face of work and life stress. 

Researcher Sabine Sonnentag at the Department of Psychology at the University of Mannheim, in her many published studies on the topic, has identified specific detachment and recovery activities (physical relaxation, mastery/control, deploying ‘signature strengths’, and affiliation) that significantly reduce physical and emotional exhaustion at the end of the workday while enhancing engagement on the subsequent day. 

While not exhaustive, the following ‘detachment and recovery’ blueprint offers evidence-based ways to recharge your emotional, physical, and cognitive batteries while increasing performance.

Detach and recover during work

  • Schedule three to five breaks during the workday. According to two separate studies by Raquel Benbunan-Fich a professor of information systems at Baruch College, short, voluntary, and impromptu structured breaks in the workday significantly increase energy level and performance. Such structured ‘microbreaks’ are even more powerful on days you are already fatigued when you begin your workday or when you have multiple ‘back-to-back’ meetings scheduled. Walking outside your workspace, engaging with a brief video, listening to your favorite music, or going outdoors are all examples of things you can do during your workday.
  • Take a siesta. Consider taking a brief nap to detach and recover while at work (or working at home). Research suggests that even in well-rested people, naps can improve performance in areas such as reaction time, logical reasoning, enhanced memory, and learning. Several published studies suggest a 10-to-20-minute nap results in significantly improved alertness and cognitive performance. Additionally, studies have also shown that taking a power nap in the afternoon is more effective than drinking a cup of coffee (caffeine causes a temporary increase in energy followed by a quick crash).
  • Practice mindfulness meditation. Unlike many talent development fads, it is well established that practicing mindfulness meditation can have beneficial effects for employee engagement, concentration, performance, physical health, and well-being. Just a single session of an hour of deep breathing, reflection, or visualisation can significantly decrease stress levels and increase overall productivity.
  • Get outdoors: Exposure to nature (in person or via video) is associated with increased happiness, positive affect, meaning/purpose and decreases in mental distress. Furthermore, two-hours a week (either at one time or spread out over) is associated with significant greater health and wellbeing so try to get outside during your workday if possible, to detach from work stress.
  • Take your lunch break. Separate work with a lunch break to replenish your personal resources. In fact, research strongly supports the value of using your lunch break focusing on non-work activities to significantly lower stress, physically relax, and enhance psychological wellbeing in the afternoon.

Detach and recover after work

  • Shut off your electronic devices. Physically separating yourself from a constant work stream on your smart devices can help you recover from a stressful workday (and might also facilitate more sound sleep at night). Schedule and engage in pleasurable leisure experiences after work to create a boundary between work and non-work that don’t involved your phone, tablets, or streaming devices.
  • Shut off your work mind. Before you leave work for the day, reflect on what progress you have made during the day and complete a daily to-do list for the following day (research from Teresa Amabile from Harvard University has found that on days when employees feel they made progress on the job they reported the highest level of wellbeing).
  • Engage in a nightly leisure activity. Read a book, listen to a podcast, engage in physical exercise, or select any number of relaxation strategies that help you unwind, relax, and recharge your emotional batteries while lowering your level of work stress.

Detach and recover during the work week

  • Schedule a ‘Little Saturday’. Use the Scandinavian concept of ‘Little Saturday’ (lille lørdag) in which Wednesdays are treated as opportunities for a weekend type of mini celebration. Any day of the week can be treated as a ‘Little Saturday’ in contrast to our Hump Day that often depicts Wednesday as one of the worst days of our week with the weekend still a bit of a way off. 
  • Create a weekly ritual. Create little celebrations by yourself or with others that can break your weekly routine and allow you to detach and recover during the week. Such rituals help you to benchmark the week and detach from daily stressors that you face on the job (e.g., take an online class; schedule time for a hobby you enjoy; or master a new skill).

Detach and recover during the weekend

  • Connect with others. We are biologically wired to be social creatures. Find and cultivate those in your life that are supportive, caring, empathetic, and resourceful to you. In a study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University found those with strong social support networks had a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationship (equivalent to quitting smoking and comparable to well-known risk factors such as lack of physical activity and obesity).
  • Identify and deploy your signature strengths. In a random controlled research study by Martin Seligman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, individuals who acted on their passions and strengths each day for one week demonstrated significantly higher levels of happiness and less depression for up to six months.
  • Give back/volunteer. One way to disconnect from work and recharge is to ‘pay forward’ and get involved in groups, organisations, and community activities that are cause based. Indeed, new research suggests that volunteering is associated with a positive change in wellbeing. 

Detach and recover in holidays/vacations

  • Take earned holidays/vacations. Researcher Karen Matthews from the University of Pittsburgh studied 12,338 men for nine years as part of a large coronary heart disease study called MRFIT. She found that annual vacations by middle-aged men at high risk for coronary heart disease was associated with a significant reduction in all-cause mortality and more specifically death due to heart disease. Her study provides some interesting research in support of the argument that vacations might be good for your health.
  • Detach while on holidays/vacations. Vacations are not vacations if you are working. Jana Kühnel and her colleagues from the Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany found that work engagement significantly increased, and participant’s job burnout significantly decreased immediately returning after vacation where people could completely detach from work. However, these beneficial effects faded out within one month unless leisure time relaxation experiences were extended after the vacation.

So, whether you are an engaged workaholic or feeling the current pressures associated with uncertainty, change, and increased demands brought about by a worldwide pandemic, learning ways to detach (mentally, physically, and emotionally) combined with recovery strategies can mitigate stress and enhance wellbeing. 

There is no ‘one size fits all’ in these strategies but these antidotes for long hours, heavy workloads, and conflicting work/family demands can help to prevent job burnout.


About the author

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President/Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning


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