Leave work at work to ensure better health and sleep

Woman using a laptop SOCIAL SCIENCES
Working after hours impedes cognitive function and productivity.

Research has revealed that continuing work-related activities after hours has an adverse impact on productivity, sleep and stress.

An international study of 230 healthcare employees over two years found that continuing to work after hours – whether it’s emailing, checking phones, laptops and text messages – has an adverse effect on productivity and recovery.

In a paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers from UniSA, the Netherlands and Japan show that work-related activities after hours affect sleep quality and the ability to relax and recharge for the next day.

Director of UniSA’s Asia Pacific Centre for Work, Health and Safety, Professor Maureen Dollard, says modern technologies increasingly mean that employees are tuned in to their workplace during leisure time, erasing the boundaries between work and home.

“What the study is showing is that if you finish work and still engage in work-related activities, then you’ll find it more difficult to detach in those areas, and this is really bad for recovery, work stress and sleep quality,” she told The Lead.

“Managers need to create a climate in which working beyond regular hours is not ‘business as usual’ because taking work home impedes cognitive function and productivity,” Prof Dollard says.

“Both managers and employees should find creative ways to accomplish job demands within regular work hours.”

Tips to ‘switch off’ from work

Lead researcher, UniSA Adjunct Professor Jan de Jonge, says low-effort activities such as reading, watching television or listening to music help people detach from work and ensure a good night’s sleep. Previous research has shown that a daytime nap of around 30 minutes also helps to restore alertness and improve productivity.

Work-related tasks, however, affect our mental and emotional recovery states after work. On the other hand, housework, cooking and looking after children are positively related to sleep quality in the long run.

“These latter activities are both resource-depleting and enhancing, helping to both disengage from the job and get a better night’s sleep,” Prof de Jonge says.

Exercise is a good way to switch off if it’s not too late in the day, otherwise it can spike adrenalin and cortisone levels in the body, making it difficult to wind down and sleep.

Lessons for employers

Prof Dollard says the study demonstrates that employers should not be requiring workers to be switched on emotionally and cognitively outside of reasonable hours.

“There can be procedural things that organisations can do, like when your boss sets a good example by not sending emails outside work hours and sets some clear parameters around that,” she says.

The study, Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Off-Job Activities on Recovery and Sleep: A Two-Wave Panel Study among Health Care Employees, is available on the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health website.