Many workers today feel frazzled, overwhelmed and ready for a vacation.
Witthaya Prasongsin via Getty Images
There’s job stress, and then there’s the crushing pressure paramedics went through during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The uncertainty, the dread, the constantly changing protocols, the shortages of personal protective equipment, the multiple calls to the same nursing home — it was almost too much for Kate Bergen of Manahawkin, New Jersey.
“It felt like everything was closing in around us,” Bergen says. “At some point I knew that I couldn’t take any more. Was I headed for a meltdown? Was I going to just walk off the job one day? I was getting very close to that point.”
Instead of quitting, Bergen found a calling. One day while waiting for the next emergency call, she took a picture of herself in her full PPE. The image inspired her to paint a self-portrait poster in the style of World War II icon Rosie the Riveter. The message: “We need you to stay home.”
It was the first in a series of “Rosie” posters of women first responders, an ongoing project that has helped Bergen calm her mind during her downtime. Ultimately, she says, the Rosies helped her withstand the stress of her job and allowed her to show up to work each day with new energy and focus. “They made it possible for me to keep going.”
While workers like Bergen are responding to emergency calls and saving lives, many of us are doing things like responding to emails and saving receipts from business trips. But even for people with jobs in offices, restaurants and factories, there’s an art and a science to making the most of downtime, says Sabine Sonnentag, a psychologist at the University of Mannheim in Germany. The right approach to non-work time can help prevent burnout, improve health and generally make life more livable. “When a job is stressful, recovery is needed,” says Sonnentag, who cowrote an article exploring the psychology of downtime in the 2021 issue of the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior.
Workers everywhere are feeling frazzled, overwhelmed and ready for the weekend. With that backdrop, researchers are doing work of their own to better understand the potential benefits of recovery and the best ways to unwind. “Work recovery has become part of the national conversation on well-being,” says Andrew Bennett, a social scientist at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. “There’s a growing awareness that we can’t just keep working ourselves to death.”
At a time when many people are rethinking their jobs (if they haven’t already quit), they should also be thinking about their quality of life away from work, Sonnentag says. “People should ask themselves, how much free time do I have and how much energy do I have for my free time? How do I want to continue my life?”
Paramedic Kate Bergen painted this self-portrait, the first in her “Rosie” series, to combat work stress while sending a message about burnout.
A weekend paradox
We can all use a chance to unplug and unwind, but here’s the rub: Recovery from work tends to be the most difficult and elusive for those who need it most. “We call it the ‘recovery paradox,’” Sonnentag says. “The odds are high that when a job is stressful, it’s difficult to have …….