Time to unwind: When autonomy and motivation add weight to recovery

Extended working hours and off-job duties leave increasingly less time for a person to recover. Thus, the more important it becomes for a person to seek activities that really help to unwind from daily hassles. But is there anything such as the right or even wrong recovery activity? And what role does motivation play in this regard? In this blog post I will elaborate on these questions by reviewing recent research.

John Maynard Keynes anticipated that at a certain point of time people would succeed in solving their economic needs and thus, devote less time for work. With more time at hand, people would engage in activities that would facilitate personal growth (Skidelsky & Skidelsky, 2013). Nowadays, the picture seems to be a bit different: People do not work less but instead devote more time than ever for work. What is particularly worrisome is the fact that more and more people are in need for help because of physical or mental issues as a result of intense work-related stress (Eurofond, 2010; WIdO, 2012).

At this point you may start wondering if there is a relationship between extended working hours and experiences of stress-related symptoms? Indeed, a substantial body of research provides evidence in support for this correlation (e.g., Nixon, Mazzola, Bauer, Krueger, & Spector, 2011; Sparks, Cooper, Fried, & Shirom, 1997). But rather than elaborating on the causes or consequences underlying this relationship, it is an even more important question to determine how one could actually lower the risk of falling prey to stress at the workplace?   

While there are certainly many factors that contribute to this relationship (e.g., too many or not enough work tasks), one reason that can be certainly inferred is the failure to recover. Recovery is a process that allows you to restore stress-related effects (Demerouti, Bakker, Geurts, & Taris, 2009) that you have encountered during the day. Accomplishing work-related tasks puts the psychobiological system of a person under strain. Elevated blood pressure levels or fatigue are only a few of several symptoms that become apparent under or following stressful situations (e.g., Vrijkotte, Van Doornen, & De Geus, 2000; Zohar, 1999). Most of these symptoms are reversible as long as these stressful periods are terminal (Meijman & Mulder, 1998). That is, once the strain has ceased, the psychobiological system can return to its baseline level which means the person can eventually start to recover. An example, that you may be familiar with, are approaching deadlines. Even if you manage to prepare everything in advance, there are likely days on which you spend hours behind your desk, staring at the screen and being constantly interrupted by emails, telephone call, or meetings. After such a stressful day, you are likely to feel exhausted and tired. The dangerous part is here, if stress exposure continues over extended periods of time and therefore becomes chronic, recovery cannot take place (Demerouti et al., 2009). Consequently, acute stress-related symptoms transform gradually into chronic ones and a person’s performance starts to deteriorate (e.g., LePine, Podsakoff, & LePine, 2005; Zijlstra & Cropley, 2013). That said, recovery is essential to a person’s well-being. But what can you do to avoid that these symptoms become a constant companion of your life?

Apply the br[e]ak[e]s

Are you one of those people who continue working even during lunch hours or are you somebody who will use your break to finish groceries or other house-related duties? Unfortunately, as research shows, both types of lunch activities are anything but efficient (Demerouti et al., 2009; Trougakos, Beal, Green, & Weiss, 2008). This is because these activities do not allow you to restore physical and mental resources, but rather drain them even further. Therefore, it is important to make use of your breaks in a more mindful way. The story though is not that easy: As Trougakos, Hideg, Cheng, and Beal (2014) have found, the positive effects of breaks on recovery do not only depend on what people do during lunch time, but also the extent to which they can autonomously decide how to manage their breaks. For instance, employee’s fatigue was substantially higher at the end of a working day if they joined their colleagues in social or work activities. Yet, these negative effects were even more pronounced if the employees felt less freedom of choice. Meanwhile, relaxing activities alleviated fatigue but worsen it when autonomy was low. In other words, breaks are only effective unless you can decide how you spend them.  

Everything good but even better with intrinsic motivation

Next to breaks, the activities that you choose during your off-job time are equally important. Still, as it turns out, it is not so much a task at hand but rather whether you derive pleasure from the things you do just for the sake of doing them. In a study published last year, Ten Brummelhuis and Trougakos (2014) asked employees to record off-job activities, their level of exhaustion as well as the extent to which they felt recovered the next day. In addition, they assessed their participants’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation related to the activities that they pursued. Next to that, they differentiated three types of leisure (social activities, low-effort activities, and physical activities) and three high-duty activities (work-related, household and care). So, what did they find? First, pursuing leisure activities – regardless of the level of effort involved – was positively associated with feeling recovered in the morning. However, this relationship was even more pronounced when activities are chosen because of intrinsic motivation. That is, the person engages in something not because he or she is expecting a reward, but rather because the activity is inherently pleasurable or interesting. What about the high-duty tasks? As expected, spending off-job time on high-duty tasks such as cleaning or care raised exhaustion the following day. Yet, these detrimental effects were less pronounced when the decision was intrinsically motivated. Therefore, leisure activities such as watching TV or spending hours at the gym are certainly more beneficial than high-duty tasks but both types can have positive effects as long as intrinsic motivation lays the foundation for a task.

In sum, you can see that there is no “golden” recovery activity. Rather, you can recover from your workload, both during and after work - as long as you feel that you have the autonomy and intrinsic motivation to do so. 


Brummelhuis, L. L., & Trougakos, J. P. (2014). The recovery potential of intrinsically versus extrinsically motivated off‐job activities. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 87(1), 177-199.

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Trougakos, J. P., Hideg, I., Cheng, B., & Beal, D. (2014). Lunch breaks unpacked: The role of autonomy as a moderator of recovery during lunch. Academy of Management Journal, 405-421.

Vrijkotte, T. G., Van Doornen, L. J., & De Geus, E. J. (2000). Effects of work stress on ambulatory blood pressure, heart rate, and heart rate variability. Hypertension, 35(4), 880-886.

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