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The Science of Weekend Recovery

Finding your own best way to recover from the work week—and go back stronger.

Key points

  • Many Americans are spending weekends and holidays working, leading to negative work-related stress.
  • Unwinding on the weekend is important, but how we choose to unwind is equally important.
  • The right form of recovery for you depends on the nature of your work.

Does it feel like it’s more difficult to disengage from work these days? If so, you’re not alone. According to the latest American Time Use Survey, one in five American workers spends an average of 5.94 hours working on weekends and holidays.

Working on the weekends is the message society tells us about how to get ahead. A Google search of what entrepreneurs do on weekends returns cheerful articles filled with advice to unwind and relax—yet Quora and Reddit forums asking the same question reveal what entrepreneurs actually do: work on their businesses.

Is it any wonder that the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey found three in five workers are experiencing negative work-related stress?

It’s time to reclaim our weekends.

Recent Research on Weekend Recovery

Earlier this year I wrote about setting goals for a life worth living outside of work and how, if we want to avoid burnout and improve our resilience, we need to rethink how we refresh ourselves while off the clock.

Since writing that piece, I’ve become curious about a pair of studies that go beyond the fact that relaxation is necessary and ask the question of which type of activity can help us feel the most rejuvenated.

In a 2017 study from San Francisco University, Kevin J. Eschleman and his colleagues found that workers in less-creative jobs (such as cashiers, security guards, and technicians) were more likely to benefit from creative activities outside of work. Workers in creative jobs such as designers and architects, on the other hand, were more refreshed by noncreative pursuits.

A more recent study from the Université Grenoble Alpes in France extended the question to look at not only the activities participants did but also the amount of effort those activities took and the way they made the participant feel (which they call “experiences”; e.g., relaxation, mastery, control).

They found that participants who engaged in activities related to their work experienced lower recovery over the weekend, while those who engaged in social, physical, and creative experiences recovered better. Digging even deeper, they discovered that two specific experiences—psychological detachment from work and relaxation—were more likely to assist with recovery.

I want to highlight this for the one in five of us who are working 5.94 hours on weekends and holidays: the more distinct your nonwork activities are from your work activities, the more recovered you will feel at the end of your weekend.

Complementary Work and Recovery

Given this, how should you be spending your weekends? What you find most restorative will depend on the nature of your work.

Because so much of my work throughout the week is cerebral and done at a computer, I find that activities that are outdoors and physically engaging are incredibly restorative—even if they’re technically “labor.” A few weekends ago I spent the weekend stacking two cords of wood at our home, then helped a friend spread cedar chips. I ended up sore, but happy and refreshed.

I’ve seen similar stories from clients who have chosen to engage in recreative activities that complement their work.

  • One client, a tenured law professor, turned to painting to relieve stress, refresh her spirits, and spark her creativity. For several winter months, she awoke early and painted a small watercolor with soil paints. The pursuit opened up new creative avenues for her; she wrote a book to inspire other lawyers.
  • Another client, a writer, chooses a sewing or woodworking project when she needs a break from wordsmithing. She says it engages her creativity in a different way, engaging the problem-solving and engineering part of her brain and allowing her to come back to her creative writing refreshed.

Whatever the activity, it seems participation is a key factor in how it affects us. A 2014 study followed two cohorts in 10-week classes. One group was given art lessons and actively produced paintings, while the other only viewed and discussed art. The group that produced art saw increased connectivity in the brain’s default mode network, which can improve our ability to be creative and imaginative.

Your Own Best Weekend Recovery

Which activities will help you recover best over the weekend? Start by asking yourself the following questions.

1. What is the mental nature of your work?

Those in noncreative jobs should look for ways to explore their creativity on the weekends, such as taking up a new hobby.

If you’re in a creative field, try giving your mind a few days to recover while you engage in physical work, or a complementary hobby that lights up other parts of your brain besides what you use in your work.

2. What is the physical nature of your work?

For those of us who spend our days physically sitting at a computer or desk, activities that get our bodies moving can be good recovery. Those who are more active throughout the week might find stillness to be the best thing for them.

Think about your environment. Do you spend most of your work week in an office or in the city? Try an activity that gets you into a natural environment. Do you spend your days in a home office? Try an activity that gets you out into a more social space.

3. What is the social nature of your work?

Changing up who you interact with throughout the week can also make a difference. If most of your work is solo, consider taking a weekend class or going on an outing with friends. If you spend your week in meetings, maybe a solo hike or a morning spent reading are just what you need to unwind.

Whatever activity you choose, I encourage you to experiment with your weekends and vary the pattern of your recovery to learn how you can best show up refreshed on Monday morning.

References

American Time Use Survey (2021). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm

2021 Work and Well-being Survey (2021). American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/01/special-burnout-stress

Eschleman, K.J., Mathieu, M., Cooper, J. (2017) Creating a Recovery Filled Weekend: The Moderating Effect of Occupation Type on the Relationship between Non-work Creative Activity and State of Feeling Recovered at Work, Creativity Research Journal, 29:2, 97-107, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2017.1302756

Ginoux C, Isoard-Gautheur S, Sarrazin P. "What did you do this weekend?" Relationships between weekend activities, recovery experiences, and changes in work-related well-being. Appl Psychol Health Well Being. 2021 Nov;13(4):798-816. doi: 10.1111/aphw.12272. Epub 2021 Apr 17. PMID: 33864428.

Bolwerk, A., Mack-Andrick, J., Lang, F.R., Dörfler, A., Maihöfner, C., “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity.” (2014) https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101035

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