Why taking recovery time from work is vital for your mental health – and how to do it properly

Written by Meg Walters

After being sick, it’s important to take time to recover – even if that means taking a sick day from work. Here’s how to take a sick day that actually helps you to fully recover and fend off work stress. 

We’ve all been there before. You wake up with all the symptoms of a bad cold – a searing headache, a running nose and tickle in your throat. Instead of calling in sick, turning off your alarm and crawling back under the covers, you drag yourself out of bed and crack open your laptop to work from home. Or, even if you do take the day off sick, you promise yourself you’ll be back bright and early first thing tomorrow – after all, you tell yourself, you’ll be on the mend by then.

More and more of us, it seems, are saying no to sick days. In fact, as of 2019, more than half of Brits claimed that they felt guilty taking the day off work due to an illness. Some felt that they’d be judged poorly by their bosses, while others simply couldn’t shake the feeling that they would fall behind or miss out on something important at the office.

As Sarah Marrs explains in a recent Psychology Today piece, this rising feeling of guilt at taking the time off work in order to get through an illness doesn’t just have an impact on our ability to recover physically – it has an impact on our mental recovery, too. So, she suggests, we all need to rethink our relationship with the concept of ‘recovery time’.

What is recovery time when it comes to work?

“Recovery time, put simply, is non-working time,” Marrs writes. While everyone can create their own unique recovery time routine, she adds, there are four key characteristics of effective recovery, as laid out by researcher Sabine Sonnentag:

  • Control: a choice of how the time is spent
  • Mastery: an element of learning or improving a skill
  • Psychological detachment: a complete disconnect from work
  • Relaxation: little-to-no physical or mental exertion

Why is taking proper recovery time from work so important for our mental health? 

As registered psychotherapist and trauma recovery specialist Heather Kent tells us, avoiding taking sick days tends to increase the symptoms of burnout.

“It is vitally important to take proper recovery time so that the nervous system and other physiological symptoms have a chance to come down from a hyper-aroused ‘fight or flight’ state,” she says. “This state occurs whether you’ve been physically ill, or you’ve reached a state of burnout due to work stress.

“Research has shown that constant connection to work when you’re supposed to be taking time off (even if it is just a few hours at the end of the work day) can actually cause musculoskeletal, psychological, gastro-intestinal and cardiovascular problems,” she adds. “Other studies suggest that the inability to disconnect from work could cause workers to experience poor recovery from work (due to the inability to switch off), increased work-life interference, higher levels of burnout, chronic fatigue and increased health impairments.”

Many of her recent clients have displayed signs of serious work-related burnout that has led to necessary time off. “In most cases, by the time they came to therapy they were far beyond the burnout point and had to take an extended leave from work to recover,” she says. “And they all initially felt incredibly guilty about not working.”

But even after finally taking a sick day or reaching the burnout stage, many people struggle to settle into a true state of recovery even when they’re at home. She says, “It took a few weeks before they could reconcile not checking emails or responding to text messages from co-workers without feeling guilt.”

How to take the recovery time you need – and how to do it properly

The first step goes without saying: pick up the phone and call in sick.

The next step is where things tend to get tricky: taking recovery time that ticks the four boxes of control, mastery, psychological detachment and relaxation. In other words, taking recovery time that works.

“Changing your relationship with downtime is first and foremost an ‘inner work’ job,” explains Kent. “It involves shifting your mindset to let go of the guilt of not being connected to work and instead placing value on long-term sustainability.”

How can you implement the characteristics of control, mastery, psychological detachment and relaxation to ensure proper recovery?

“Control involves having a choice over how your downtime is spent; as such, it follows that you would want to choose activities that you find pleasant and/or enjoyable, and that you don’t often get to engage in because of work,” she says.

For Kent, this means spending time playing her guitar or exploring a new hiking trail.

“Mastery,” according to Kent, “involves improving or learning a skill; going back to my guitar example, I had to refresh my knowledge of chords and then I learned new techniques as I practiced more regularly.”

You could also try a new recipe or a non-fiction book. Try to learn something new that has nothing to do with work.

“Psychological detachment,” she goes on, “means being completely disconnected from work.” She suggests switching off work notifications or even uninstalling the mail app on your phone.

“Relaxation is where I encourage clients to book that long overdue (or perhaps first) massage appointment, prioritise taking a long hot bath or shower each night before bed, listening to relaxing music or watching a light television show or movie.” 

The takeaway? However you choose to spend your time off work, make sure that it really is time off. Whether you’re taking a sick day, a holiday or it’s just a weekday evening, when you’re away from work physically, it’s crucial to be away from work mentally, too. Just as your body needs time to recover in-between taxing workouts, the body and the mind need time to recover in-between work days, too — especially if you’re already feeling run down. Maybe it’s time we all started taking our recovery time a little more seriously.

Images: Getty

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