Now, let’s talk recovery

March 27, 2017
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Last week we talked about burnout – what is it is, who it impacts, how it impacts you, and what the symptoms of burnout feel/look like. Today I’m going to spend this post talking about what we can do about burnout, how we can prevent it – essentially, how we recover.

First, I think I should give you some imagery to keep in your mind as we make our way through this article. Think of a cup. Pick any cup you like (you can pick the photo in this post if you want). A coffee cup, water bottle, wine glass (ha!)…now, picture that cup full of stones. This cup represents your resources available to deal with things you encounter throughout the day. Now hold on to that image – I’ll talk about it again soon.

So we know what burnout is – but what is recovery?

Meijman & Mulder (1998) described the stress and recovery cycle as:

“In the practice of the study of workload, the short-term reactions include all the responses at a physiological, behavioral and subjective level that can be related to the load process. These reactions are in principle reversible. When the exposure to load ceases, the respective psychobiological systems will stabilize again at a specific baseline level within a certain period of time. This process is called recovery.”

In other words, we have daily stressors in our lives which require (psychological, physical, emotional) resources from us so that we can effectively respond to them. Once these stressors go away, we are in a position to recover. What does this ideal position for recovery look like? Well, you’re most likely to experience recovery when you aren’t experiencing workplace demands. This type of recovery typically takes place during “off-work” time when you are both physically (& psychologically) away from your workplace environment. Once you’re away (we refer to this as psychological & physical detachment) you have the opportunity to engage in behaviors and activities that can contributes to your recovery.

Recovery is a process

I think it’s important to note that I said once these stressors are, in theory, removed, we are in a position to recover. Just because we have the ability to recover, doesn’t mean that we actually will. We have to invest in our own recovery. Okay, so how do we do this?

First, let me make a distinction between active and passive forms of recovery.

Active forms of recovery (typically) require some investment in resources, the potential returns on this type of investment are greater, meaning that active forms of recovery have been shown to not only restore spent resources, but also generate new resources. What are some examples of active forms of recovery? Participation in sports or other group activities, exercise and volunteer activities.

Passive recovery experiences tend to only facilitate a homeostatic level of perceived stress and resource availability. In essence, binge watching television doesn’t really help you regain lost resources as much as an hour at the gym. One exception to this rule is sleep, which is considered to be a relative easy and very effective method of recovery. Sleep can arguably be seen as passive or active depending on your perspective.

I like to think of active versus passive as existing on a continuum rather than being either one or the other. This hasn’t been reflected in the research yet, but I think we’re on our way. Ultimately, recovery is a personal (& unique) process for all of us, and only we know what recovery strategies will help us to effectively manage our physiological and psychological responses to daily stressors. Apart from considering the active <—> passive nature of the activities you engage in to help recovery from daily stressors, we can also talk about how recovery activities are grouped into 5 forms: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery experiences, control, and sleep (yes!).

Psychological detachment (put that email away!).

I mentioned this once before about how you need to literally detach (aka, get the heck outta dodge) and also psychologically detach in order to position yourself for successful recovery. Your ability to “switch off” after you’ve left work is the foundation for psychological detachment and is a necessary component for recovery so that your workplace to-do list isn’t continuing to drain resources from you while you’re supposed to be recovering. Seems simple, right? Wrong. With today’s technology, it’s becoming more difficult to successfully detach psychologically from work after the workday is done. Now, just because you’re not physically at work doesn’t mean that you’re not still thinking about tasks or preparing for the following day. A lack of psychological detachment from work has been shown to have potential negative effects in both the short and long term, including a significant increase in emotional exhaustion, decreased well-being at bedtime, and poorer quality of sleep. The problem with this is that if you get poor sleep, you aren’t as productive the next day, so you end up bringing more work home, and you’re not detaching. It’s a vicious cycle that is really easy to fall into. I used to be really bad at this, now I’m only sort of bad (ha!). I respond to emails whenever they come in. So this is something that I still struggle with. Setting boundaries is super important for your psychological health, and that means putting the email away.

Relaxation (“ommmm…“).

The first time I learned about this category of recovery activities it made me laugh. I mean, really, is there anything worse when you’re super stressed out and someone tells you to relax? I don’t know about you, but this is the last thing I think of when I think about things that can help me recover. So if you’re like me, let me try to reframe “relaxation” and how it is a beneficial category of recovery experiences. Relaxation involves mental and physical experiences that are associated with “low sympathetic activation”. This means that these activities are associated with a decreased heart rate, tension in the muscles, and other types of physical reactions to stress. Examples of these activities would be meditation or listening to certain types of music. Relaxation methods are often associated with feelings of positive affectivity (positive mental states), and have been shown to decrease sleep problems, need for recovery, and feelings of fatigue. Participation in relaxation experiences after vacationing (more on vaca’s in a bit) has been shown to help prologue the positive recovery effects gained during the off-work time.

Mastery experiences (engage your passions as much as your email).

Alright, we’ve hit the mother load. These are the experiences that give you the most bang for your buck, the highest return on your investment, the cream of the crop…you get it. These are recovery activities that are associated with challenge and learning. These experiences are meant to challenge you without being too taxing. They have the ability to increase your sense of self-efficacy by yielding a sense of expertise in a new area or building confidence on an existing skill or interest. Certain types of mastery experiences have been identified as more beneficial than others. The most effective activities include exercise, learning activities, and volunteer work. Volunteer work has been shown to aid significantly in the recovery process because of one’s ability to create new relationships and experiences, which aid in building new resources. Research has shown that your perceptions of the positive impact you’re having by volunteering can serve as a buffer against feelings of emotional exhaustion caused by negative perceptions towards your workplace tasks and identities.

In addition to volunteering, when you’re feeling high levels of workplace stress, physical exercise has been shown to be especially beneficial with not just recovery from stress, but also as a mood regulator. I know this really resonates with me. If I am having an especially stressful day I feel a million times better after I go for a nice long run. Exercise has also been shown to be associated with a positive mood at bedtime, which is associated with sleep quality.

These all sound great, right? The issue with mastery experiences is that they require an additional investment of resources during a time when all you want to do is lay down on the couch and binge watch something on Netflix. This is a totally natural desire, and we’ve all been there. However, this will lead to potentially less effective, passive recovery strategies, especially if you aren’t too great at self-regulating (self-regulation is your ability to consciously override your desire – i.e., you want to sit on the couch and binge watch Netflix, but you’re going to make yourself get up and go to the gym). Self-regulation is a limited resource, similar to other resources expended when dealing with work-related stress. When self-regulatory resources are depleted in response to continued stress, you may be prevented from engaging in activities that require aspects of self-control, like exercise, thus continuing an unhealthy cycle. How do we combat this? Routine, routine, routine. The existence of routines has been shown to aid in the participation in mastery activities when self-regulatory resources are depleted.

Control (all the control freaks in the party say “Yeah!”).

Yeah! haha. Yes. Hi, my name is Nicole, and I’m a Type A control freak. I try to harness my powers for good, by spending time on the things that matter most to me – the essence of this category of recovery. These types of recovery experiences allow you to spend time on things that matter most to you. These could be any form of activities or experiences that are in line with goals or your other individual desires. This leaves less time for things that are considered stressful or not beneficial. Essentially, you do you. This seems simple enough, but for those of you with children and families, or outside work commitments, this isn’t as simple as it may seem. Research has shown that having control over your non-work time has the potential to give you a more positive outlook. How do we do this? We carve out a little space for ourselves. A time that we choose, that we have control over, and we can do whatever we want in that space.

Sleep (give me all the zzz’s).

Last, but certainly not least, sleep! Sleep is sometimes ignored as a method of recovery because it is so passive in nature. The irony of this is that carving out time for sleep and preparing for sleep (I’m thinking of my nightly skin ritual here) requires significant effort for many individuals. Regardless of whether sleep is seen as a passive or active recovery strategy, sleep has been shown to have significant restorative and positive effects on workplace performance. Research has shown that sleep quality is the strongest predictor of positive and negative affective states the following morning. Poor sleep quality negatively impacts your ability to work, and your ability to self-regulate. This creates a type of “domino-effect” because if self-regulation abilities are impacted by poor sleep quality then you will have less of the self-regulatory resources available to successfully cope with the following day’s stressors. So how do we get better sleep? One of the mysteries of the universe, but I do have a couple tips: (1) get off the email before bed – give yourself an hour away from social media and email to wind down, (2) try to go to bed at the same time every night (or do as best as you can) – your body is on a cycle, but it can’t make habits if you aren’t letting it, (3) make your sleeping space relaxing, whatever that means to you – for me, it’s clean sheets, a nice candle, a little lavender oil on my pillow, and major cuddle time with my pup (& Nathan).

At the end of the day, you have to figure out what works for you.

Remember the cup with the stones in it that I told you to imagine. Each time you respond to a stressor, you lose one of those stones. This cup isn’t Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s trunk either, so the bottom of this cup, is the bottom. When you run out of stones, that’s it. So, by engaging in recovery activities, you can add stones back into your cup. Some activities may require a couple stones to engage in them, but you get twice as many back in return. Whereas other activities don’t take any stones away, but you don’t get any back either. Regardless of whether a specific recovery behavior or activity is active or passive in nature, or could be identified as detachment, relaxation, mastery experiences, control, or sleep, the actual choice of which type of recovery to engage in is an individual one. It’s completely up to you. Individual differences in recovery strategies and preferences exist. What you might find relaxing may not have the same effects for me. You may like to listen to smooth jazz to relax, whereas I like to listen to techno. Your definition of what you find relaxing is influenced by your individual preferences or individual differences. Next time you are trying to decide how you are going to spend your day off, think about what will help fill your cup – running? painting? reading? spending time with friends and family? taking a nap? We need your innovative mind sitting at the table, so let’s keep our cups full.


How do you recover? Comment below! (& don’t forget to subscribe!)




Funny story – when I first got a smart phone I was excited that I could check my email on it. I set up a little ding sound when a new one would arrive.

About a week later I’m sitting in my office feeling really stressed out and anxious. So pronounced that I thought to myself, wow I’m feeling abnormally anxious and I don’t know why.

Then my phone dinged, and a rush of stress filled my body. I put two and two together and turned off notifications. A day later, equilibrium was restored and problem solved.

But it was funny how the stress crept up on me slowly until that breaking point