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How Hobbies Can Help You at Work

Research shows that your downtime can help your full-time job.

Key points

  • Someone's leisure activities can actually help them become more effective at work—but the kind of leisure activity matters.
  • Hobbies that were serious but dissimilar to work and hobbies that were similar to work but less serious were most likely to bring benefits.
  • People with such hobbies reported higher career-related self-efficacy, a useful psychological resource.

By Karoline Strauss, Ph.D., Professor of Management, and Julia Smith, Editor-in-Chief of ESSEC Knowledge

You would be hard-pressed to find someone nowadays who denies the importance of work-life balance. Decades of research have shown that it is key for work and personal outcomes, and companies are taking note, making it a common buzzword on job postings and in the workplace.

But does it matter what you do with that balance—in other words, how you spend your time outside of work? Myself (Karoline Strauss) and my colleagues Ciara Kelly (Sheffield University Management School), John Arnold (Loughborough University), and Chris Stride (Sheffield University Management School) have shown in our research that it does; indeed, our work highlights the positive impact of leisure activities on psychological resources that can help at work.

Enduring career success comes down to more than the sum of the work experience, education, and technical skills listed on a resume. Your personal resources—qualities like self-efficacy—are also critical in maintaining a sustainable career.

My co-authors and I defined a "sustainable career" as one in which the employee is “healthy, productive, happy, and employable throughout its course” [1] and that fits into, rather than takes over, an employee’s life as a whole. Anyone who has ever struggled to switch off emails after work or wrestled between staying late at the office and meeting friends for dinner knows this is easier said than done—hence the focus here on personal resources that bolster a sustainable career: namely, self-efficacy, which refers to the strength of your conviction in your abilities. Here, we looked at it specifically in how it relates to one's career, so employees’ career-related self-efficacy.

Why is self-efficacy important to your career, you may ask? Given that the world of work is constantly in flux, having faith in your abilities is an invaluable asset when faced with changes and difficulties. It’s not just us who are saying so, either—scores of papers have pointed to self-efficacy as invaluable for a whole host of work behaviors, like career satisfaction [2] and employability [3].

How Leisure Activities Improve Work Life

So how do leisure activities fit into this picture, and just what kind of leisure are we talking about? Leisure activities run the gamut from watching Netflix to more involved activities like dancing and singing in a choir.

To account for this and to see if the type of hobby is important, my co-authors and I classified leisure activities in two ways: according to their seriousness and according to their similarity to the employee’s work activities. The possibility of a leisure activity being "serious" may seem counterintuitive, but what it means is that you consider it to be an important part of your identity, that it involves regular training, and that you intend to become good at the activity.

Because skill acquisition implies mastery, these activities were found to help build self-efficacy through fostering confidence in your abilities. Since these experiences are taking place outside of work, they aren’t associated with the risk of losing your job if something goes wrong, making for an opportunity to develop personal resources in a less stressful setting.

Can Leisure Activities Interfere with Work?

So far, we’ve painted a rosy picture of the benefits of serious leisure activities, but it’s important to consider the potentially deleterious impact of leisure activities on your psychological resources. Can there be a downside to being very invested in a hobby?

My answer? It depends on how similar your work and hobby are.

Similarity was analyzed based on how the skillset, activities, and mental and physical demands of the hobby mapped onto those of the employee’s job. This presents a conundrum, as it may be beneficial to practice the same skills on your "off-time" as during your work, thereby enhancing your personal resources. On the other hand, by never really switching off from your work, you may end up more depleted and end up with detrimental consequences for your personal resources and your job. By looking at leisure seriousness and work-leisure similarity, my colleagues and I were able to tease out this conundrum and figure out how you can best make your downtime work for you full time.

Using this approach and gathering monthly data from employees over seven months, we found that there are two patterns that can help optimize how you spend your downtime. If you spend more time on a hobby that’s serious but dissimilar to your work, or not serious and similar to your work, you’ll see an enhancement in your level of self-efficacy.

Beware, though, of "too much of a good thing": spending a lot of time on a hobby that’s both serious and similar to their work tended to leave people with lower levels of self-efficacy compared to when they spent less time on their leisure activity of choice. This might be because people found it quite taxing to be constantly depleted and not particularly effective.

So a journalist who has a cooking blog on the side may actually experience decreased self-efficacy compared to an accountant with a cooking blog, or another journalist who likes to rock-climb in their spare time. This could be because engaging in different challenging activities exposes you to different experiences and builds up different resources. When you are drawing from the same resources during work and during your leisure time, you run the risk of exhausting yourself from the lack of recovery time if the activity is more challenging. Conversely, if your hobby is similar to your work but is more low-key, it is less taxing and doesn’t pose the same threat to recovery, instead allowing you to build up self-efficacy.

We’ve known for a while now that it’s important to have a life outside of work and that what you do with your life outside work has implications for your job. From this study, we can also learn that hobbies aren’t just a means to kill time and have fun: they can also provide an opportunity to build up useful resources like self-efficacy that can translate to maintaining a sustainable career. It also suggests that there are important nuances to be considered in the impact of leisure activities. This is useful for the employer looking for the best performance from their employees, the employee seeking to both enjoy themselves and have a successful career, and the would-be entrepreneur looking to turn their hobby into a business.

What This Means for You

What can we do with this information? As an employee, consider how related your hobby of choice and job are, how challenging your hobby is, and how pivotal it is to your sense of self. If you find yourself answering “Very related, very challenging, and it defines who I am,” you may want to put some extra effort into disconnecting from both to avoid depleting your levels of self-efficacy.

If, however, you answer either “Well, they are similar, but my hobby is quite relaxing, and I don’t take it that seriously!” or “I put a lot of time and effort into my hobby and it’s a huge part of me, but it bears zero similarity to my job,” you’re in luck, as this has the potential to increase your self-efficacy, which can bolster your career sustainability.

As an employer, consider that everybody wins if you encourage your employees to feel fulfilled and seek out hobbies outside of work, rather than wanting employees’ sole focus to be on their job.

Finally, this may serve as a cautionary note to people looking to start a business based on their hobby: it might become too much of a good thing. Altogether, this highlights how important it is for researchers and employers alike to consider how life outside work influences life on the job, and how this relationship can be nuanced. And if anyone is looking for motivation to take up a new hobby, add this to the list: it can help your career!

For more management insights, check out ESSEC Knowledge.

LinkedIn image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock


Check out the original article at: Kelly, C. M., Strauss, K., Arnold, J., & Stride, C. (2019). The relationship between leisure activities and psychological resources that support a sustainable career: The role of leisure seriousness and work-leisure similarity. Journal of Vocational Behavior, doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2019.103340.

1. De Hauw, S., & Greenhaus, J. H. (2015). Building a sustainable career: The role of work-home balance in career decision making. In A. De Vos, & B. Van der Heijden (Eds.). Handbook of research on sustainable careers (pp. 223–253). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

2. Abele, A. E., & Spurk, D. (2009). The longitudinal impact of self-efficacy and career goals on objective and subjective career success. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74(1), 53-62.

3. 1. Berntson, E., Näswall, K., & Sverke, M. (2008). Investigating the relationship between employability and self-efficacy: A cross-lagged analysis. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 17(4), 413-425.

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