Some jobs are inherently stressful. High demands, low control. They take their toll on people physically, emotionally and behaviorally. Chronic work stress can lead to chronic problems from hypertension and ulcers to depression.
Stress is as much subjective as objective. Different people perceive the same job as challenging and exciting, demanding and stressful. Much depends on the individual, but there is no doubt that some jobs are potentially very stressful with long hours, demanding bosses and clients.
All of us have coping strategies at and after work. Some slump before the television, full wine glass in hand. Others go for a jog or attempt a bit of therapeutic gardening. You can phone a friend, take the dog for a walk, try a bit of meditation.
But how easy is it to “switch off” after work? You can take your work home in one of two ways: electronically and/or psychologically. Laptops, iPads and Blackberrys can mean you never switch off – literally. They are as much curse as blessing particularly if you are commanded – rather than volunteering – to use them.
But what about rumination? Repetitive, intrusive, almost involuntary thoughts about work. Mark Croply, a health psychologist at Surrey University (England), has made a study of the area. He found between two-thirds and three-quarters of people say they find it “difficult to unwind after work.” A full quarter of all sorts of people say they think about work-related issues in their leisure time, including holidays, weekends and extended breaks.
This is not about work-life balance as much as work-life boundaries. It is about not letting work issues dominate outside work, during leisure activities.
A report in Leisure Studies (Vol. 28, No. 3) investigated the typical behaviours of high and low ruminators. Predictably the former had "live to work" and the latter "work to live" philosophies. High ruminators were not actually clear about their contractual hours of work (e.g. 35-45 hours per week), so weren’t clear how much they were overworking. It was in part an element of their work culture, but it was also their choice.
The problem is worse for those who experience the Zeigarnik effect, discovered 80 years ago. Unfinished, incomplete tasks are remembered better than completed tasks which are "put-to-bed," and part "erased from the system." For those working on long-term, complex projects that are rarely easily completed, it is all the easier to dwell on them at home.
Interestingly, healthy low ruminators were more intrinsically, rather than extrinsically motivated. There was a big difference in how they coped. High ruminators seemed to withdraw and get cut off from social contacts more, both at and after work. But low ruminators seemed to do the opposite. They had more fulfilled leisure and much more work-family harmony.
The question is, what differentiates those who can, and do, throw the big red switch on the journey home and those who can’t let go and pull out the plug? The news is not good for the ruminators. They are six times as likely – compared to non-ruminators – to report problems with concentration, five times as likely to experience anxiety and other somatic symptoms, and four times as likely to report fatigue, depression, irritability and worry. Their stress hormones are higher all the time and they are particularly prone to "cognitive errors": all those little mistakes and forgetfulness that we experience on a daily basis. Ruminators are tired, moody and poor at decision making.
There are acute and chronic consequences of this ability to unwind. Sleep problems and mood disorders can lead to psychiatric and cardiovascular disease.
The idea is not that different from the ‘90s concept of workaholism: a sad, sick addiction to work. Here the individual puts work above everything else for the psychological functions it promises to fulfil: self-respect and self-esteem; identity. The paradox with workaholics is that they are often not that productive. They work hard not “smart.” And over time they lose sense of their priorities. They are seen as pathetic rather than heroic, compensators not fulfillers.
Workaholics stay at work. Ruminators take it home, at least in their heads. This means they have little or no time for restorative leisure, for recreational activities, for time to recharge their batteries. As a result they don’t allow themselves the all-important incubation period, so well understood by creativity researchers, who know that it is best to stop working on a problem in order to solve it.
Ruminators need to be taught how to switch off. Ultimately, it is a lot better for them and the people that they work for that they do. A tired, obsessed, error-prone worker is no good to anyone.
So ruminators need to be encouraged; given permission; and taught how to relax. To take time out; enjoy friends and family. A burnt-out, fatigued employee is a less productive employee.
Another one of those “unforeseen consequences” stories. In trying to make people more productive (giving them electronic gismos), you make them less so. Our grandparents knew this, but then they chose different metaphors. All work and no play makes Jack a less productive, anxiety and error-prone, high ruminator.