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  • AutorenbildBirgit Ohlin

Work Recovery: 5 Fundamental Elements to Recover from Workplace Stress

When was the last time you felt fully recovered from your stressful work environment? Job demands are higher than ever and with increased work speed, job insecurity and complex work environments the pressure is on for employees.Organizations are aiming to support their staff’s work recovery by providing free gym memberships and massages – economist Milton Friedman’s phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch” comes to mind. But there is more to work recovery than hitting the gym for an hour. The latest scientific findings in the field of Positive Psychology indicate that there are five fundamental elements which (ideally in combination) promote completely winding down from stressful work.

Stress and Lack of Recovery

We feel stressed when we feel unable to cope with the demand being placed on us. However, stress is not necessarily bad for us. As long as we manage to recover after a stressful period, there is little harm in feeling stressed. Persistent coping with acute and chronic stressors, however, leads to wear and tear on the body (the so-called allostatic load) and can have a profound impact on health.

Chronic stress (and in particular lack of recovery from it) can accelerate disease processes and lead to chronic illnesses. It is a paradoxical fact that the physical reaction to stress is supposed to protect our health, yet these reactions themselves can be harmful (McEwen & Lasley, 2002). So, stress is not harmful per se, but failure to recover properly is.

A Model for Work Recovery

What do you do to recover from a stressful work day? Recovery strategies vary, some of them are more active, such as playing sports, while others are rather passive, like watching television. According to the DRAMMA Model proposed by Newman, Tay & Diener (2014), there are two basic areas of recovery:

⇒ Prevention (demand reduction)

⇒ Promotion (resource gain)

Both need to be addressed for employees to properly unwind. Within these two areas the following five elements promote work recovery and support subjective well-being:

  • Detachment-Recovery

  • Autonomy

  • Mastery

  • Meaning

  • Affiliation

Here is how you make the most of each of the five elements.


Time away from work is essential for recovery, especially when we manage to cognitively switch off. Fortunately, companies are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of work ecovery. Ideally, leisure activities should not draw on the same resources used during work in order to maximize recovery. Therefore, hairdressers cutting their friend’s hair in the evenings or tax agents spending weekends filing their friend’s tax reports will not reach the same level of recovery during their work break despite the fact that they may voluntarily engage in these activities (especially if they do not enjoy doing them). The same is the case if you find yourself ruminating about work during your time off. In order to maximize recovery, you need to be able to psychologically detach from work and concentrate on something different.

So, make sure your leisure activities help you to disengage from work-related matters. Activities can take the shape of sleeping, watching TV or lying on the beach. But you may find it easier to detach after a busy work day by engaging in arousal seeking behavior or a hobby which demands your full attention such as playing soccer, painting or salsa dancing.


Whether you recover well during leisure time has a lot to do with whether you feel you get to do your own thing. Research shows that independence and self-direction are important factors when it comes to well-being. Say you find yourself running from soccer practice at the local club (of which you are a loyal member) to meeting a friend (who has just lost his job) and then rush home to babysit your children (while your wife takes evening classes at university).

While all these activities may be voluntary engagements, chances are you will not feel particularly recharged at the end of the evening. What counts is how you feel about the activities you engage in. If they feel like an obligation you miss out on an important element for well-being: the sense of designing your time autonomously.

The freedom of autonomous leisure decisions is beneficial because it is based on intrinsic motivation which is a key ingredient for well-being. Only if you feel in charge of designing at least part of your leisure time autonomously, will you get the maximum recovery from the activities you perform.