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Lieke ten Brummelhuis | Work Hard, Play Hard: The Role of Recovery After Work

2021, Future of Work, PFL 2020-2021, President's Faculty Lectures

Work stress is not a novelty; in the past decade, research has shown that about half of Canadians experience stress on a daily basis. On top of the usual stressors, the pandemic brought stress to new levels for many.

In this lecture, I explain how stress develops on a regular work day, and how stress levels can be brought back to their baseline to prevent health and productivity issues. I then discuss what happens if stress becomes ongoing, either due to pressures from work, or due to an inner drive to work hard (workaholism). I unveil the key role of recovery after work to stay happy and productive at work, and wrap up with practical tips for employers and employees.

— Lieke ten Brummelhuis

Tue, 09 Mar 2021

6:00 p.m. (PT)

Online Event

The President's Faculty Lectures

The President’s Faculty Lectures shine a light on the research excellence at Simon Fraser University. Hosted by the SFU president, these free public lectures celebrate cutting-edge research and faculty that engage with communities and mobilize knowledge to make real-world impacts.

Lieke ten Brummelhuis

Lieke ten Brummelhuis is an Associate Professor of Management and Organization Studies at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. She received her Ph.D. in organizational sociology from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Lieke’s research interests are related to employee well-being, including employee recovery, workaholism, work-life balance and flexible work designs. She is motivated to find an answer to the question of why people work in the way they do, and what work styles improve work outcomes, work-life balance and well-being. Her work has been published in academic journals such as American PsychologistJournal of Applied Psychology and Harvard Business Review.

Event Summary

Work Hard, Play Hard: Reflections on a Lecture on Stress, Recovery and Resilience in the Workplace

By Matthew Chan, MBA, SFU Beedie School of Business

On March 9, Professor Lieke ten Brummelhuis of SFU’s Beedie School of Business delivered a virtual lecture as part of SFU's 2021 President's Faculty Lectures on the theme of resilience and recovery. With the accelerated shift to work-from-home arrangements during the pandemic, Lieke’s lecture was timely for many, including myself, as the lines between work and personal life have become increasingly blurred. 

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Lieke opened the lecture by positing that not all stress has to be detrimental. Stress can lead to an urgency to get important tasks accomplished within a certain window of time. However, as our mental and physical capacity, which Lieke also referred to as “resource investments,” become diminished over the workday, it is vital to also engage in resource replenishment. 

This notion of recovery and replenishment allows us to ensure that our stress levels do not remain elevated for an extended period, which inevitably leads to long-term health implications such as cardiovascular disease. In order to experience meaningful recovery, Lieke highlighted three main criteria: firmly stop work demands, replenish lost resources and gather new resources. Personally, I found the last point intriguing—gathering new resources, for instance by engaging in new activities. These activities can take the form of social, physical or personal development, such as learning a new language. Though developmental activities do require mental capacity, which may seem draining, they also serve to bring deeper fulfilment and provide lasting energy. 

In the second half of the lecture, Lieke highlighted a thought-provoking study she conducted on the topic of workaholism and its implications for physical health. First, it is important to distinguish between working long hours and workaholism. In this study, work hours refer to work behaviour—how many hours a week one works—while workaholism refers to an intensive work mentality. The latter can be described as a compulsive inner drive to work hard that is more than financially necessary or socially expected.

The study, in partnership with a Dutch consulting firm, identified and surveyed workaholics from a large Dutch firm to build a model to predict their future health implications. These health indicators included elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. These conditions are known as risk factors for metabolic syndrome (RMS), which is a direct precursor to cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and diabetes. 

The results from the study were fascinating on a few levels. The group that worked longer hours reported minimal health complaints, as they did not also have the workaholism mentality. However, among the workaholics, a segregation between non-engaged and engaged employees revealed a deeper insight. Engaged workaholics reported a lower risk for RMS by 4.2% compared to the non-engaged workaholics. Their level of engagement can be traced back to several sources: more family support, higher intrinsic job motivation, more autonomy at work and better communication skills.  

Prior to this lecture, I thought that working long hours was synonymous with being a workaholic. However, employees who tended to work long hours might truly feel more fulfilled, rested and able to disconnect, as opposed to workaholics who continuously ruminate about work demands.

However, regardless of which category an employee falls into, there needs to be distinct boundaries in place between work and home to ensure sufficient time to rest and feel rejuvenated. Practical tips include implementing breaks during the workday and time-blocking to complete tasks without interruptions. Furthermore, engaging in activities that allow for relaxation, which will look different for each person, should be daily practice as well. Lastly, it can be helpful to invest time into intentional self-reflection on a weekly or quarterly basis, asking yourself: what is your motivation at work? Being able to move away from extrinsic rewards (status, money) and shift towards intrinsic motivators (autonomy, progress, competence) can lead to a greater potential for long-term sustainability.

Lieke ended with this takeaway: “Humans beings are resilient, but we should not push our boundaries constantly.” This lecture was another important reminder to ensure we take care of our physical and mental health in order to perform at our best for the long term!

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In the News

Work intensification' during pandemic adds dimension to workaholism — Derrick Penner, Vancouver Sun (March 5, 2021)

Work-life balance suffers under COVID-19 pandemic — John Ackermann, CityNews (March 3, 2021)

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