From Covid stress, to downtime and recovery: How health workers are coping with post-pandemic ‘emptiness’

From Covid stress, to downtime and recovery: How health workers are coping with post-pandemic ‘emptiness’


There’s job stress, and then there’s the crushing pressure paramedics went through during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The uncertainty, the dread, the constantly changing protocols, the shortages of personal protective equipment, the multiple calls to the same nursing home – it was almost too much for Kate Bergen of Manahawkin, New Jersey.

“It felt like everything was closing in around us,” Bergen says. “At some point I knew that I couldn’t take any more. Was I headed for a meltdown? Was I going to just walk off the job one day? I was getting very close to that point.”

Instead of quitting, Bergen found a calling. One day while waiting for the next emergency call, she took a picture of herself in her full PPE. The image inspired her to paint a self-portrait poster in the style of World War II icon Rosie the Riveter. The message: “We need you to stay home.”

It was the first in a series of “Rosie” posters of women first responders, an ongoing project that has helped Bergen calm her mind during her downtime. Ultimately, she says, the Rosies helped her withstand the stress of her job and allowed her to show up to work each day with new energy and focus. “They made it possible for me to keep going.”

While workers like Bergen are responding to emergency calls and saving lives, many of us are doing things like responding to emails and saving receipts from business trips. But even for people with jobs in offices, restaurants and factories, there’s an art and a science to making the most of downtime, says Sabine Sonnentag, a psychologist at the University of Mannheim in Germany.

The right approach to non-work time can help prevent burnout, improve health and generally make life more liveable. “When a job is stressful, recovery is needed,” says Sonnentag, who co-wrote an article exploring the psychology of downtime in the 2021 issue of the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour.

Workers everywhere are feeling frazzled, overwhelmed and ready for the weekend. With that backdrop, researchers are doing work of their own to better understand the potential benefits of recovery and the best ways to unwind.

“Work recovery has become part of the national conversation on well-being,” says Andrew Bennett, a social scientist at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. “There’s a growing awareness that we can’t just keep working ourselves to death.”

At a time when many people are rethinking their jobs (if they haven’t already quit), they should also be thinking about their quality of life away from work, Sonnentag says. “People should ask themselves, how much free time do I have and how much energy do I have for my free time? How do I want to continue my life?”

Illustration in style of iconic Rosie the Riveter poster, of a paramedic wearing a mask, her right forefinger pointed at the viewer. Text reads “You Can Do It!,” “We need you” and “We step up when others step back.” The medical caduceus is also in the poster.

Paramedic Kate Bergen painted this self-portrait, the first in her “Rosie” series, to combat work stress while sending a message about burnout.

We can all use a chance to unplug and unwind, but here’s the rub: Recovery from work tends to be the most difficult and elusive for those who need it most. “We call it the ‘recovery paradox,’” Sonnentag says. “The odds are high that when a job is stressful, it’s difficult to have an excellent recovery.”

That paradox was underscored in a 2021 analysis that combined results from 198 separate studies of employees at work and at home. Workers with the most mentally and emotionally draining jobs were also the least likely to feel rested and rejuvenated during their off time. Interestingly, people with physically demanding jobs – construction workers, furniture movers and the like – had much less trouble winding down. The surest way to feel lousy after hours, it appears, is to think too hard at work.

Sonnentag authored a 2018 study published in Research in Organization Behaviour that helped to explain why the paradox is so hard to escape. People who were more stressed out at work tended to get less exercise and worse sleep, an ideal scenario for feeling less than great. In other words, stressful work can disrupt the very fundamentals of healthy living.

To help workers break out of that destructive loop, researchers are pondering both sides of the work/life cycle. As Sonnentag explains, certain tasks, obligations and workplace cultures make it especially hard to unwind when work is done.

Time pressure, the feeling that one is constantly under the gun, is especially disruptive. Jobs in health care, where that time pressure often combines with life-and-death stakes, tend to be especially taxing.

Working with customers can be exhausting too, Sonnentag says, partly because it takes a lot of focus and effort to act cheerful and friendly when you don’t always feel that way deep down, a task known as emotional labour.

The demands of work vary widely from one person to the next, and so do approaches to downtime. Recovery is highly individual, and different people will have different strategies. “We don’t have a single prescription,” Bennett says. Researchers have grouped approaches into broad categories, including “relaxation” and “mastery.”

Relaxation, a concept that’s easier to grasp than it is to achieve, includes any activity that calms the body and mind, whether it’s walking through a park, reading a good book or watching a zombie hunter movie on Netflix. (Note: The latter may not be an ideal choice if your actual job involves hunting zombies.)

Experts in the field of work recovery have identified three main areas of concern that need to be investigated in a rapidly evolving work landscape.

Mastery, meanwhile, can be achieved through any activity that challenges a person to be good (or at least passable) at a new skill. Just as painting helped Bergen cope with stress, workers can find relief in their accomplishments.

“Anything associated with learning can be helpful,” Sonnentag says. “It could be some kind of sport or exercise. It can be something like learning a new language or trying new cuisines when cooking.” A 2019 study that followed 183 employees over 10 workdays found that people who achieved some sort of mastery during their off time were more energetic and enthusiastic the next morning.

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