Have you ever finished the working day and felt as though the weight of the world is on your shoulders? Worse, it’s 9 am on Monday morning and you feel so tired that it would be more appropriate if it were 5 pm on Friday afternoon? You are not alone. Yet solidarity in how tiring work can be does not achieve much, can foster a desire for the excessive alcohol consumption, purchasing of lottery tickets, and simply perpetuate the spiral. None of this is healthy or sustainable. Surely, there must be a better way! I am pleased to report there is, and it takes the shape of what we do during our non-work time.
But first, a primer on mood so we can better understand how efficacious our current recovery experiences really are.
What is Mood?
In the journals of record, definitions of mood are — to the lay reader — jargon infused and opaque. To take one example:
mood is defined as prolonged core affect without an Object, affect regulation as action aimed directly at altering or maintaining one’s own core affect without reference to an Object.(Russell 2003, 149)
Which begs the question, what is ‘affect’? This will only yield something along the lines of:
A neurophysiological state that is consciously accessible as a simple, nonreflective feeling that is an integral blend of hedonic (pleasure–displeasure) and arousal (sleepy–activated) values.(Russell 2003, 147)
So much, so complicated. But there is good reason for this. Much of what we take to be obvious because they are daily encounters, such as the notion of ‘mood’, are in fact highly complex phenomena. Dismissing them out of hand, failing to apprehend their complexity in a fit of ‘everyone knows’, or assuming because someone is a ‘people person’ that they are well placed to understand the complexities of the human condition, explains why organisations continue to struggle with the human elements of people management. In this context, we need to grapple with the complexity for a moment to better understand how our working day and our leisure time activities share a symbiotic relationship.
As far as mood goes, we need to move beyond thinking of it as a ‘feeling’ or momentary ’emotional condition’. Rather, it is best expressed by a model of three intercorrelated bipolar dimensions: wakefulness–tiredness, calmness–tenseness, and pleasantness–unpleasantness.
To this three-dimensional model, we need to add the conceptualisation of the effort-recovery-model (ERM). According to the ERM model, employee wakefulness, calmness, and pleasantness, decrease during the working day because of the effort expended to fulfil their work-related tasks and demands. To give an example of this: I expend energy presenting in meetings, thinking about problems, and dealing with challenging staff members. As a result of this exertion, my wakefulness declines, my tenseness increases, and if left unchecked my unpleasantness moves toward desk flipping mode. A situation that is only compounded if my starting energy is insufficient to supply the demands of the day.
The positive news, regarding mood at work, is that this same cycle can have an uplifting trend. When we complete tasks, achieve objectives, and get good news from colleagues.
To fully understand how this uplift process works, we need to look at what Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz describe as ‘the underlying psychological experiences associated with recovery’. Put more succinctly — recovery experiences.
In mentioning recovery experiences, I am sure that something is already coming to mind for you. Perhaps a long walk, a glass of wine, time with your partner, a gym session, or game time. While these can provide the recovery needed to face the next day, we first need to think about what it is that forms the underlying principles of a true recovery experience. The reason for this ‘first principles’ approach is it enables us to examine what we do to recover and assess the possibility that what we do to recover, is in fact not providing the recovery experience we think.
Over the decades, the literature has surfaced four core types of experience that provide meaningful recovery:
- Control: the autonomy to determine what we will do with our non-work time
- Psychological Detachment: being physically and mentally away from work.
- Relaxation: a decrease in activation of the central nervous system.
- Mastery Experiences: learning and other personal development opportunities that are successfully achieved.
Our ability to address these four factors can either create a virtuous or vicious cycle that affects the fifth factor at play in our recovery experiences — sleep quality.
Control, preferably high, is I would argue the bedrock of the other three recovery experiences. The reason for that is having the autonomy to control your psychological detachment, relaxation, and mastery experiences will be the deciding factor as to their efficacy. For example, if you have to work a second job to make ends meet, then you do not have control over your time ‘away’ from your day job. But have control over this free time and you can engage in the sort of activities that will facilitate better sleep quality.
The role of psychological detachment is to reduce or stop our propensity to think about work — either in a positive or negative way. When our mind is buzzing and we haven’t detached from the working day, even if thinking about all the exciting things we have to do, it will tend to impair sleep. By detaching from these thoughts and by physically leaving the place of work — an act that becomes challenging when working from home — over time we will experience better sleep quality.
Relaxation involves a reciprocal relationship between the mental and biological. In lowering our heart and respiratory rates, during the wind down before bed, we will tend to harmonise our psychological arousal patterns to match the biological changes. For those with young children, you will be acutely aware that pillow fights and boisterous activity just before bed pretty much ensures a fractious night. As adults we remain largely unchanged. Get in some exercise to tire ourselves out but ensure that is earlier in the day. Doing so further boosts our chances of good sleep quality.
High mastery tends to bring feelings of competence and safety. But much like the relationship between exercise and relaxation, experiencing a high sense of mastery can bring increased energy and impair our sleep. Thus, making it important to experience high mastery earlier in the evening or day so that the energy high can subside and leave us with a glow of competence that feeds into the relaxation experience and help us to fall into a sound sleep.
Due to the restorative function that sleep plays in our lives, there is a positive correlation between getting a good night’s sleep and our start-of-work mood. This is because when we engage in good pre-sleep behaviours, we will experience higher wakefulness, calmness, and pleasantness the following day. In other words, we are in a better mood at work. Conversely, with no control over our pre-sleep behaviours, or if we have formed bad habits, then we will experience high tiredness, tenseness, and unpleasantness as we don our clothes and point our unwilling feet toward the working day. Queue desk flipping when problems arise.
This cycle is augmented by the post-sleep thinking which inevitably flows. If I am feeling a low sense of mastery, for example that the tasks at work are beyond me, then my moments immediately following that bad night’s sleep will likely be suffused by a sense of loathing for the day ahead. Yet, if the day previous had involved activities giving me a high sense of mastery, there is a greater likelihood that I will feel a higher sense of confidence that I can surmount the coming day’s challenges.
These principles are wonderfully conceptualised in this diagram by Maike Arnold and Sabine Sonnentag in their recent article Time matters: The role of recovery for daily mood trajectories at work:
The implications of our approach to recovery experiences and their benefits for our sleep cycle are profound. While we should all seize the initiative and not wait for someone else to provide solutions, there are some key takeaways for the practise of management on which I want to end.
The first is creating a work culture of it being ‘ok’ to be unavailable after hours. True, this is impractical for some roles — for example if you are an A&E doctor who needs to be on call or a system administrator who may need to be summoned in the event of an outage. But for most employees, that email can wait until tomorrow, that Teams’ message can go unanswered for a few hours. In this context, managers have a duty of care to encourage staff to use technology wisely. Engage ‘office hours’ notification routines so that your phone / computer holds notifications outside of work hours.
Second, managers should encourage employees to be autonomous in the scheduling of their daily tasks. This is because an employee is generally the best judge of the days in which they are experiencing high levels of calmness or wakefulness. During these times, it is most efficacious to focus on tasks that require a high level of concentration.
Third, employees should be encouraged to engage in at work recovery routines. This can take the form of regular breaks, taking meetings off site to a park or coffee shop, or doing a regular ‘stand and stretch’ for those who have predominantly sedentary occupations. This will help to ensure that the effects of a good mood and higher levels of restfulness are retained for longer.
Finally, employees need to be helped to make connections between their out of work choices, their at work energy levels, and their sleep quality and mood the next day so that they engage with the full range of recovery experiences: control, psychological detachment, relaxation, and mastery experience. In other words, people need to apprehend that quality recovery is largely in their hands, and that they are masters of their mood at work.
Good night, and good luck.
Arnold, M, and Sonnentag, S (2023) Time Matters: The role of recovery for daily mood trajectories at work. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.
Horne, J (2001) State of the art: Sleep. Psychologist, 14(6), 302.
Matthews, G, Jones, DM, and Chamberlain, AG (1990) Refining the measurement of mood: The UWIST Mood Adjective Checklist. The British Journal of Psychology, 81(1), 17–42.
Russell, JA (2003) Core Affect and the Psychological Construction of Emotion. Psychological Review, 110(1), 145–172.
Sonnentag, S, and Fritz, C (2007) The Recovery Experience Questionnaire: Development and Validation of a Measure for Assessing Recuperation and Unwinding From Work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12(3), 204–221.