Focusing has felt particularly tough during the pandemic. How do we find my it again? Illustration: dickcraft/Getty Images
Picture your day before you started to read this article. What did you do? In every single moment – getting out of bed, turning on a tap, flicking the kettle switch – your brain was blasted with information. Each second, the eyes will give the brain the equivalent of 10m bits (binary digits) of data. The ears will take in an orchestra of sound waves.
Then there’s our thoughts: the average person, researchers estimate, will have more than 6,000 a day. To get anything done, we have to filter out most of this data. We have to focus. Focusing has felt particularly tough since the start of the pandemic. Books are left half-read; eyes wander away from Zoom calls; conversations stall.
My inability to concentrate on anything – work, reading, cleaning, cooking – without being distracted over the past 18 months has felt, at times, farcical. The good news? We can learn to focus better, but we need to think about attention differently. It is not something we can just choose to do. We have to train the brain like a muscle. Specifically, with short bursts of daily exercises.
Dr Amishi Jha is a professor of cognitive and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Miami and an expert in the science of attention. She has written a book called Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, a four-week training program based on her research showing how simple mindfulness exercises carried out by people with high-demand jobs, such as soldiers, elite athletes and emergency medics, improve many aspects of cognitive and emotional health, including strengthening our attention.
When I first opened Peak Mind, I set a timer to see how long it would take me to feel the pull of social media. Three minutes in, I check Twitter. I tell Jha this and she erupts with laughter. “Oh, that’s fantastic,” she says. I tell her this distractibility has made me anxious. She nods patiently. “There is nothing wrong with your attention, even if you feel more distracted right now.
That is a healthy response to your current situation. To think otherwise is just false,” she says. “We’re in a crisis because our attention works so well. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do: respond powerfully to certain stimuli.”
Stress is one of the biggest obstacles to focusing, says Jha. In a high-alert state, we often start ruminating and catastrophic. We get stuck in “loops of doom” or imagined scenarios. This mode impacts our “working memory”: the amount of information that can be held in our minds and used for a task. For example, choosing the words to put together in an email, or reading a page in a book.
“Working memory is like a mental whiteboard with disappearing ink,” says Jha. When that whiteboard is full of thoughts, feelings and images relating to what’s making us stressed, there is no room for new information. We might start blanking, zoning out or snapping at our partners, then feel guilty, which makes focusing even harder….
I just want to quit work and be a bartender! Sarah blurted at a workshop I was leading. We were talking about career aspirations. When we were done chuckling at her unexpected words, I asked her what she loved about being a bartender. “You mean other than the drinks and tips?” she shot back, recovering nicely. She paused for a few moments before saying, “I love lending a helpful ear to others.”
As we explored further, Sarah discovered she was energized by creating a safe space where others could open up, be heard and feel better. As we dug deeper, she realized that it would be really energizing for her to be an evangelist for creating a culture of psychological safety in her workplace. She started to explore how she could broaden her role in human resources. Until that time, Sarah hadn’t connected the dots of how she can have the “bartender experience” at work.
Like Sarah, many of us dream of quitting our day jobs in search of fulfillment. “What am I even doing here?” many of us ponder, depleted of energy at the end of a very long day. We postpone finding meaningful work until we are just a little bit more financially secure. Maybe we think work is for a paycheck, and we look for fulfillment elsewhere.
This leaves many of us disengaged and costs organizations billions of dollars. Latest Gallup data on U.S. workplaces suggests that nearly 70% of us are not fully engaged at work and 16% are actively disengaged. Perhaps more importantly, our disengagement impacts the people we care about, as many of us drag our depleted selves home.
Beyond personal fulfillment, though, our workplaces need our full engagement, resilience and creativity to solve the toughest challenges of our time. The breakthrough for Sarah (and for each of us looking for fulfillment) came when she dug inside to know herself better. Here are three tools to help you dig deeper, too.
The first tool is your energy map. It helps you take stock of the tasks that energize you and those that deplete you. I use it with my executive coaching clients to help them determine where they should spend their time for optimal effectiveness and to stave off burnout.
You can create this map or (download here) and fill this out for yourself. Look at activities based on whether they energize or deplete you and their impact on advancing your goals. The quadrant on the top right is where we should spend much of our time. Consider dumping any activities in the bottom left. I have found that mindfulness helps me to notice my energy throughout the day so try simple mindfulness practices here.
The second tool is your personal purpose statement. There are three steps to do this. First, list stakeholders important to you and ask them the unique value you create for them. This helps you learn how you best serve others. Second, discover the activities where you feel most energized. Third, find the overlap between how you serve others and what you find most energizing.
Your purpose is simply the way in which you serve the world that truly inspires you. For example, my purpose statement is: I connect deeply with others to help them become transformational leaders who make the world better for all. This course has more detailed templates that may be useful to you. Look for opportunities to bring this purpose to life at work and in life.
What kind of work activities energize me (see the tool above)?
What contribution do I make for others that inspires me?
What strengths do I enjoy exercising?
Once you are clear on these answers, find a friend and brainstorm what sets of experiences you’d like to add to your work portfolio. Don’t focus exclusively on the next role in your career path, but rather the experiences or projects (or even volunteer activities) at work that are energizing where you can contribute with skill sets you enjoy exercising.
When you volunteer for a project or take on a stretch assignment that gives you a sense of fulfillment, that positive energy will spill over into your day job. Others will notice your positive contributions. You can even choose to share this insight with your boss, mentors and sponsors inside your organization to align your projects closer to your best contributions.
More and more enlightened organizations are focusing on their own purpose and helping people inside those organizations connect with work that is meaningful for them. Brighthouse, a Boston Consulting Group company, helps organizations excavate their purpose.
CEO Ashley Grice talks about how organizations can find purpose and then use it to make an impact. “Purpose has impact emotionally and it has impact financially,” she says. “The bar has gone up a lot in terms of what employees expect from employers in making a difference in the world.” In fact, institutional investors like Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, are pushing organizations to think long-term about their focus on purpose.
As Grice says, the key in actualizing purpose is not just coming up with a great statement (e.g. BCG’s statement is “Unlocking potential to advance the world”), but actually coming up with a set of principles that act like guard rails and help employees bring purpose to life in every day decisions and behaviors. As leaders in organizations large and small, I see it as our responsibility to create workplaces where people can thrive and make their best contributions, so engage others in a purpose conversation.
Now, let’s turn back to the individual level. The poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The work is ours. The time is now. We all need to be fully engaged in our purpose so we can solve the issues that matter to us.
This holiday season, many of us gathered with our families, some for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While time with loved ones can be heartwarming, family dynamics can also be complex and challenging. We offer insights around some of these relationship challenges and skills for building stronger relationships in our Science of Happiness course, a free, eight-week online course that explores the roots of a happy, meaningful life.
When we asked students in the conclusion of the course how the journey had impacted them, they shared everything from small habit changes to big life transitions. But one of the themes that kept coming up was how the course enhanced their sense of connection with family.
Family is key to well-being
In an opening discussion in the course, we asked students all around the world what makes them happy. The overwhelming response revealed how important family is for happiness.
Annette, a new student in the course, summarized it this way:
“The things that make me happy are spending time with my family and my dog, seeing my children grow and prosper in adulthood, being able to be independent despite physical limitations.”
Many students identified family relationships as their main focus for improvement through the course. They described many difficulties in these intimate relationships, as well: Juggling work and home life can be challenging, and when we are stressed, we often project our negative emotions on to our loved ones.
For example, Yainak, a student who recently completed the course, reflected:
“When I was terribly busy raising my children and I didn’t have the time to be considerate of others, it was difficult for me to be grateful to others, and I would only complain, wondering why I was the only one having a hard time. I couldn’t even be generous to my husband, who was the closest to me. At that time, when I got together with other housewives, the main topic of conversation was complaining about our husbands.”
Research suggests that family relationships can help us cope with stress, form healthier habits, and enhance self-esteem, leading to higher well-being. So how do we strengthen our family relationships?
Skills for happier family relationships
Each of the course’s eight weeks focuses on a specific theme, and many of these are very relevant to our family relationships.
Forgiveness. Conflict is inevitable, especially in close relationships, and our forgiveness lessons in the course center on forming genuine apologies, as well as activating compassion as we consider forgiving others.
For example, students learn the process of forgiveness based on research by Fred Luskin. Once you acknowledge your feelings and make a commitment to forgive, the steps also include soothing yourself when you feel upset and focusing on your positive goals for the future rather than past hurts.
Student Anna recalls many “family members’ relationships crushed due to unwillingness to forgive,” and emphasizes that “with family members who you care about, it’s OK to be the first one to apologize to the other for the situation you are in without blaming one or the other.” Many students agreed with this observation, acknowledging how the simple action of apologizing first can initially be uncomfortable and difficult—but ultimately worthwhile.
Gratitude. One practice, the Gratitude Letter, was particularly popular in the course. Students wrote letters expressing thanks to people they hadn’t properly thanked, and delivered them in person if possible, creating the space for heartfelt conversation.
Jackie, a new student in the course, shared:
“I wrote the letter to my mom and called her. It was moving and powerful for her, even though I thank her all the time, this delivery was more meaningful as I wrote to her to thank her for the person that she is, for her happy spirit and resilience. She cried, I cried, and this exercise made us both very happy and brought us closer together.”
Student Katie created a habit of doing the Three Good Things practice, taking time to reflect on positive moments from the day as a way to bring attention to the blessings in her life. Her partner joined in for this evening ritual, which has strengthened their bond through a short but impactful moment of appreciation.
“I’ve noticed feeling more rested when we do this,” she said. “We laugh more before we sleep and are spending less time looking at screens.”
Yainak also developed a gratitude practice with her husband. “We are now able to express our gratitude to each other, and I am amazed at how happy we feel when we do so,” she said.
Mindfulness and compassion. Throughout the course, students try a variety of mindfulness and compassion practices that can benefit their relationships with their families.
In the Active Listening practice, students practice giving and observing body-language signals during conversations that help deepen connection and enrich communication—like eye contact, smiles, and nods to show you are paying attention.
Yainak found herself struggling to take care of everyone as a mother, daughter, and wife; all of the time and energy it took had become a chore, so she didn’t feel truly caring. Ultimately, she found that practicing mindfulness was a way of taking care of herself, so she could better take care of others.
She came to this realization during a Mindful Breathing practice, by “relaxing her mind and taking slow breaths.” After the course, she set a goal of creating “a life that helps those around me by gently approaching my own mind and body, then working on myself and imagining a happy future.”
Do you want to explore the roots of your own happiness and deepen your relationships? Sign up for the course in the new year and join our community of like-minded students striving for happier and more connected lives.
If you’ve been stressed out and ignoring it—isn’t everyone stressed right now?— it could be time to do something about it. That’s because even though you may be basically healthy, tension is doing its stealthy damage. The latest evidence? Researchers have linked high levels of the stress hormone cortisol to brain shrinkage and impaired memory in healthy middle-aged adults. And get this: The effect was more pronounced in women than in men.
This research underscores an important point. Though stress affects your whole body, ground zero is your brain. It’s not just the effects of cortisol—it’s that teeth-grinders like traffic jams, personal snubs, and financial worries are perceived and interpreted by your gray matter. Fortunately, research focused on the brain is pointing to new, more effective ways to reduce your tension.
But first, let’s drill down and see how and why your brain’s natural reactions make you more vulnerable to the zings and arrows of tension.
How Stress Affects Your Brain
Aspects of the brain’s design that served us well thousands of years ago now make us susceptible to negative emotions and mental fatigue, both of which ratchet up our stress, says Amit Sood, M.D., professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and founder of the Mayo Clinic Resilience Program. Although our brains have evolved over time, “the speed of life today is the main stressor—it’s much faster than our brain’s ability to adapt,” he says.
And that means we often end up with too little time and too few resources to address what life throws at us each day, which adds to a diminishing sense of control over our lives. Perceived lack of control has been shown to be a huge source of stress.
When giant predators roamed Earth, a scanning, outward-
directed focus served us well—but today that focus is directed inward. Now, 80 percent of the time, our minds are wandering, stuck in an unfocused state even if we’re not aware of it.
Studies have found that this state makes us less happy, and the unhappier we are, the more our attention wanders and our thoughts pile up. It’s like having a huge set of open files on your computer, Dr. Sood says, only they’re in your brain, distracting you and demanding attention. Our tech dependence, a source of constant distraction, adds to our inability to focus.
Our survival depends on the ability of the brain (mostly the amygdala) to detect physical and emotional threats. Moments or events that elicit fear raise our heart rate, which the brain stores as information that might protect us from future danger. This so-called negativity bias makes us prone to paying more attention to bad news than to good. We readily remember bad things that happen to us because our brains also release hormones that strengthen those specific memories, and this further embeds them in our minds. The result? More stress.
While a number of body organs (e.g., the heart and the kidneys) can keep going like the Energizer bunny, the brain is not one of them. After working hard, it needs rest. The more boring and intense an activity is, the faster your brain will grow tired—and that can happen in as little as four minutes or as much as an hour or two.
You can tell when your brain is fatigued (it has to signal this indirectly, since it has no pain receptors) because your eyes feel tired and stuff happens—you start making errors, become inefficient, lose your willpower, or see a dip in your mood. Brain fatigue leads to stress, and stress leads to fatigue, in a continuous closed loop.
Why Stress Hits Women Harder Than Men
Stress almost seems to have it out for women. In an annual survey by the American Psychological Association, women have repeatedly reported higher levels of tension than men and sometimes even more stress-related physical and emotional symptoms, including headache, upset stomach, fatigue, irritability, and sadness.
What’s more, midlife women have been found to experience more stressful events than both men and women of any other age, reports an ongoing study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute on Aging. Stress overload may even lead to chronic disease: Long-term pressures at home and work plus stress from traumatic events almost doubles the risk of type 2 diabetes in older women, according to a recent study at the University of California, San Francisco. Women are also more prone to stress-induced mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders.
Here’s thewhy of it: A triple whammy makes women uniquely vulnerable to strain and pressure, says Dr. Sood. First, women’s brains make them more sensitive than men to stressors and a perceived lack of control. The limbic areas of women’s brains, which help control emotions and memories, are highly active, making them remember hurts and slights more readily. Stewing over these and having difficulty letting them go strengthens the brain circuits of those negative emotions—another example of the negativity bias at work—which also increases women’s stress.
In addition, the multiple demands of parenting and being in charge of the well-being of the household mean that women’s focus tends to be more diffuse. And an unfocused brain, as noted earlier, is another source of stress. A mom’s protective radar is always up for her kids too, which makes her sense a threat more quickly, and she’s more likely than her husband to get stuck and dwell on it, says Dr. Sood.
What Men Don’t Always Get
The differences in how men and women experience tension don’t play out in isolation, of course. They affect how husbands and wives, friends, and work colleagues experience and interpret the world—and yes, often the result is conflict. If you’re a woman, think of a time you had an upsetting disagreement with your boss.
When you vented to your husband about it—how your boss looked at you, what she said, how you responded, how you felt, what she said next—maybe you saw his eyes glaze over, and maybe he said, “It’s over now; why don’t you just let it go and talk to her tomorrow?” Which made you feel hurt, angry, and dismissed—and depending on which feeling was uppermost, you either escalated the conversation into an argument or retreated to mull it over.
New studies are looking at how the genders process stress in the moment and coming up with reasons for the disconnect. Recently, using fMRI to measure brain activity, researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine found that while imagining a personalized, highly stressful event, the action- and planning-oriented parts of men’s brains were actively engaged, while women’s brains were busy visualizing and also cognitively and emotionally processing the experience.
In the second part of the study, when men and women were experiencing intense anxiety, brain regions that were active in women were inactive in men. This suggests that women tend to get caught up in processing their stress, turning it over and over in their minds and reimagining it, says Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., director of the Yale Interdisciplinary Stress Center.
“Women cope by talking about being anxious and describing their emotions and stressors,” she says. This could put them at risk for ruminating about the issues. Men seem not to access that cognitive-processing part of their brains and “are more likely to quickly think about doing something, taking an action, as opposed to expressing their distress verbally. It’s just the difference in the way we’re wired.”
That might explain why women tend to provide emotional support to someone who is stressed, whereas men might offer advice or something tangible like money or physical help. Ironically, what both genders want is emotional support when they’re tense, says Jennifer Priem, Ph.D., associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University. So men and women who are stressed out prefer to get support from women.
Bridging the Gender Stress Gap
Priem has found that problems arise between couples when each person has a different perception of what’s stressful. The result: When people are really tense, their partners aren’t necessarily motivated to offer support if they think, If I were in this situation, I wouldn’t consider it that big a deal. So how do you get the response you want when you need it?
Ask your partner to just listen
“That’s number one—listening to and validating the other person’s feelings,” says Sinha. “So even just saying ‘You’re really frustrated by this’ in a nonjudgmental way is validating and will ease someone’s anxiety.”
Explain that you feel defensive when he dismisses your experience
“When a partner downplays the significance of something, the person who’s stressed may hold on to it more or feel they have to convince the other person it’s true and that they have a right to feel that way,” says Priem. “You might say, ‘I’m really upset right now, and I feel frustrated when it seems you’re making light of my feelings. It would make me feel better if you’d be more responsive to the fact that I’m upset, even if you don’t understand it.’”
Treat yourself with compassion
“Women tend to be more self-critical about not being able to control their emotions,” says Sinha. So they may see a partner’s comment as judgmental even when he didn’t mean it that way. If that’s the case, forgive yourself and let it go—and hug it out, which can reduce tension and boost positive feelings.
Learning to negotiate conflicts is a big step in easing pressures. Also important: figuring out strategies to deal with the distractions, fears, and fatigue your brain naturally accumulates (see below for four smart ones). These can help you take stress in stride, with a terrific payoff: better health and greater happiness, plus a more resilient brain.
How to Control Stress and Calm Your Brain
To keep stress in check, you should of course be eating healthfully,exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep to improve your mood, emotions, and cognition. But those are just the basics—and they’re not always easy to accomplish, especially when life is throwing lots of tension your way. Dr. Sood has advice that can up your stress-reducing game, based on the successful resilience program he runs at the Mayo Clinic. Here, four of his brain-focused, research-based strategies that work in just minutes a day.
Give your brain some RUM
That stands for Rest, Uplifting emotions, and Motivation. You need all three to help energize your brain and head off fatigue. So when you’re engaged in a task, take three to five minutes every couple of hours (or sooner, if you start getting fidgety) and pause for RUM.
How-to: Get up from your computer, or stop what you’re doing, and look at photos of your kids or of your favorite vacation spot, read inspiring quotes, text or call a friend, or watch a happy short video. Choose an activity that makes you feel good and is motivating.
Begin a morning gratitude practice
Take control of your brain before it gets hijacked by the day’s concerns and greet the morning in a happier, more connected frame of mind. (Check out these simple ways to practice gratitude.)
How-to: When you first wake up, before you get out of bed, spend a few minutes thinking of some people who care about you and silently send them your gratitude. Another reason it’s a good idea: A recent study found that anticipating a stressful day when you first wake up affects your working memory later that day—even if nothing stressful actually happens. (Working memory is what helps you learn things and retain them even when you’re distracted.)
Be mindfully present
Meditation is a great stress reliever, but not everyone can sit still, looking inward, for 20-plus minutes. Good news for the fidgety: Research has shown that focusing your attention outward engages the same brain network, so you can get similar stress-easing benefits by consciously giving the world your attention.
How-to: Challenge yourself to be curious and notice details—the color of the barista’s eyes at the coffee shop, the pattern of your boss’s necktie, which flowers are blooming in your neighborhood. Curiosity feeds the brain’s reward network, which makes you feel good; it also augments memory and learning.
Focus on kindness
Even the nicest among us are quick to judge others, especially if they’re different from us (thank the amygdala, a region of the brain that interprets difference as a threat).
How-to: To calm the amygdala, focus on two things when you’re feeling judgy about someone: that every person is special, and that everyone has struggles. Start a practice of sending silent good wishes to people you pass on the street or in the halls at work. The benefits for you: Your oxytocin, the hormone of connectedness, rises; your heart rate slows; and you feel more benevolent. All of which makes you healthier and happier.
Mindfulness, detachment, selecting off-time activities with care: Here are evidence-based strategies to achieve healthy work-life balance. 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?”
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 an excellent recovery.”
That paradox was underscored in a 2021 analysis that combined results from 198 separate studies of employees at work and at home. Workers with the most mentally and emotionally draining jobs were also the least likely to feel rested and rejuvenated during their off time. Interestingly, people with physically demanding jobs — construction workers, furniture movers and the like — had much less trouble winding down. The surest way to feel lousy after hours, it appears, is to think too hard at work.
Sonnentag authored a 2018 study published in Research in Organization Behavior that helped to explain why the paradox is so hard to escape. People who were more stressed out at work tended to get less exercise and worse sleep, an ideal scenario for feeling less than great. In other words, stressful work can disrupt the very fundamentals of healthy living.
To help workers break out of that destructive loop, researchers are pondering both sides of the work/life cycle. As Sonnentag explains, certain tasks, obligations and workplace cultures make it especially hard to unwind when work is done. Time pressure, the feeling that one is constantly under the gun, is especially disruptive. Jobs in health care, where that time pressure often combines with life-and-death stakes, tend to be especially taxing. Working with customers can be exhausting too, Sonnentag says, partly because it takes a lot of focus and effort to act cheerful and friendly when you don’t always feel that way deep down, a task known as emotional labor.
The demands of work vary widely from one person to the next, and so do approaches to downtime. Recovery is highly individual, and different people will have different strategies. “We don’t have a single prescription,” Bennett says. Researchers have grouped approaches into broad categories, including “relaxation” and “mastery.” Relaxation, a concept that’s easier to grasp than it is to achieve, includes any activity that calms the body and mind, whether it’s walking through a park, reading a good book or watching a zombie hunter movie on Netflix. (Note: The latter may not be an ideal choice if your actual job involves hunting zombies.)
Mastery, meanwhile, can be achieved through any activity that challenges a person to be good (or at least passable) at a new skill. Just as painting helped Bergen cope with stress, workers can find relief in their accomplishments. “Anything associated with learning can be helpful,” Sonnentag says. “It could be some kind of sport or exercise. It can be something like learning a new language or trying new cuisines when cooking.” A 2019 study that followed 183 employees over 10 workdays found that people who achieved some sort of mastery during their off time were more energetic and enthusiastic the next morning.
For people who need a break, the “why” behind a particular activity can be as important as the “what.” A 2013 study that followed 74 workers for five days found that people who spent their off time with activities and tasks that they actually wanted to do — whatever they were — were more lively and energetic the next day than those who felt obligated or forced to do something.
Whether they’re relaxing or creating during their time away from the office, Bennett says stressed-out workers should strive to think about something other than their jobs, a process that psychologists call detachment. (The TV show Severance takes this concept to extremes.) It’s OK to have great ideas in the shower and regale your partner with office anecdotes, but research shows people with stressful jobs tend to be happier and healthier if they can achieve some mental and emotional distance from work.
The benefits of tuning out became clear in a 2018 report involving more than 26,000 employees in various lines of work, including judges, teachers, nurses and office workers. The analysis, coauthored by Bennett, found that detachment was a powerful buffer against work-related fatigue. Workers who said they were able to think about things other than work while at home were less worn out than their colleagues. On the other hand, workers who carried on-the-job thoughts throughout the day were more likely to feel exhausted.
Vacations can also help erase work stress and prevent burnout, to a point. Sonnentag coauthored a 2011 study that used questionnaires to track 131 teachers before and after vacations. The teachers returned to work feeling refreshed and engaged, but those benefits tended to fade after only a month. The post-vacation high was more fleeting for teachers with especially demanding jobs, but it lingered a bit longer for those who managed to fit relaxing leisure activities into their regular routine.
How much vacation is enough? That question is hard to answer, Sonnentag says. While many European workers expect and demand four- or five-week breaks, she says there’s no evidence that such long vacations offer any more chance for recovery than a vacation of one or two weeks. She does feel confident saying that most workers will need at least occasional breaks that are longer than just a weekend, especially if that weekend is largely eaten up by household chores and other non-work obligations.
Perhaps an extra day off each week would make a big difference. That’s the premise driving an ongoing four-day-workweek experiment involving 70 companies in the UK. The businesses, including banks, robotics manufacturers, and a fish and chips restaurant, are all expecting employees to maintain their productivity despite working one day less each week.
The full results won’t be available until 2023, but early data suggest that the four-day workweek has decreased signs of burnout and stress while improving life satisfaction and feelings of work-life balance, reports Wen Fan, a sociologist at Boston College who is helping to conduct the experiment. “The results are very encouraging,” she says.
Fan says it’s too early to know if the employees and companies were able to stay as productive as ever during the experiment, but she notes that most jobs could be done more efficiently with a little extra planning and streamlining. “A lot of time is wasted on distractions and meetings that go on too long,” she says.
No matter how many days a week a person has to work, minibreaks during the day can help, too. A 2020 survey-based study involving 172 workers in the US found that subjects tended to be in better moods and were less emotionally exhausted toward the end of the workday if they had breaks that allowed them to briefly detach from work. The study also tracked mindfulness, the degree to which people are conscious of their present emotions and circumstances.
They did this by asking the participants how much they agreed with statements such as “Today at work I was aware of different emotions that rose within me.” Employees who were the most mindful were also the most likely to truly check out and relax during their breaks from work.
A 2021 study of college students took a closer look at relaxation and exercise during work breaks. Those who tried progressive muscle relaxation, a low-stress activity that involves tensing and releasing muscles, reported more detachment during the break, while students who got their blood pumping on an exercise bike had more energy for the rest of their day.
Study coauthor Jennifer Ragsdale, now a research psychologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati, says that a better appreciation for the nuance of work breaks can help people choose the right approach for a given day. “If you need some sort of pick-me-up, you can walk round the building to get your energy going,” she says. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can relax.”
As many people have discovered during the pandemic years, it can be challenging to fully check out from work when your living room is also your office. Speaking with at-home workers, Bennett has collected tips for separating work life and life life. Something as simple as wearing a collared shirt or other office attire during work hours and changing into casual wear at the end of the day can help establish boundaries, he says. Using a dedicated laptop for work and putting any work-related materials out of sight at the end of the day can also create much-needed distance.
Ragsdale says that technology can be both an escape and a tether. The same devices that help us play games, listen to podcasts or struggle with online word puzzles also make it possible to receive work emails and other reminders of life outside of the home. Ragsdale cowrote a 2021 commentary calling for more research into the impacts of cell phones on work recovery. “When you’re continuing to be exposed to work through your cell phone, it’s harder for that recovery process to unfold,” she says. The very sight of a work email can trigger thoughts that are just as stressful as the actual job, she adds.
Not many people can completely let go of their phones when they’re at home, but they can take steps to protect themselves from intrusive work pings. “You can adjust your settings in a way that make your phone less appealing,” she says, including turning off notifications for things like email and Twitter.
Bergen can’t be away from her phone when she’s on call, but she can still feel like she’s in her own world when she’s working on a new “Rosie” painting. Psychologists may call it mastery, but for her it’s a validation and an escape. She has recently started painting women first responders who were on duty for both 9/11 and Covid. “I started out painting one thing for myself and it blossomed,” she says. “It’s turned into something beautiful.”