Recovering from Work and Rumination

Work Presenteeism
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Chloe Xu
Director, Australia

Recovering from Work and Rumination

🔥NEW The intensification of work has made 'recovery' a popular topic over the recent years. In many occupations, the work demands are no longer physical, but mainly cognitive, which leads to half of the working population complaining about the stress they get from work. Researchers believe constant, ongoing thinking of work (Rumination) is one determinant of failing to recover from work properly.

We can describe work recovery as restoring one's energetic resources. This process appears to be largely impacted by how people disengage from their work demands and related thoughts. When confronted with problems or have been working intensively, many people still think or ponder about work-related issues when not at work. This behaviour of endlessly thinking about the same thoughts is referred to as "rumination" (after the process by which cows and cattle regurgitate previously consumed feed and chews it further - see picture). Unlike the cows, a habit of rumination among humans can be dangerous as it's linked to poor problem-solving, anxiety, and depression, which clearly harms the process of work recovery and your productivity.

If you find yourself or your employees unable to stop from obsessing over their work or about the mistakes they made, try the following proven steps to break out of this rut.
  • Recognise common triggers. Without spotting what you are doing, you won't be able to stop doing it. A great way of doing this is to think about what has made you ruminate in the past. Also, your cognitive errors may trigger ruminations, such as relying heavily on first impressions, setting unrealistic self-expectations, misinterpreting others' expectations of you, underestimating the extent to which other smart people struggle with what's troubling you, and making mountains out of molehills.
  • Keep away from the things you ruminate about. One way of doing this is to take a step back and label what's running through your head as thoughts and feelings. Next time, you may take it more light-hearted: "That's just my ruminating mind overheating again." Or look for any subtle entitlement or self-absorption behind your acts of rumination. The ironic belief that the world revolves around you disables you to let things go easily.
  • Shift from rumination to problem-solving. Ruminations are avoidance of coping rather than problem-solving. To shift from it to development mode, you need to focus on what you can choose to do next, given the unchangeable reality. Even taking an unperfect step forward can help to reduce the likelihood of the same mistake happening again.
  • Train your brain to move on. Short and mentally absorbing activities with moderate difficulty can help you distract yourself from ruminating for a few minutes. Physical exercises, such as meditation, walking, jogging, or yoga also calm a mind that is prone to rumination.
Today, the boundary between work and leisure appears to be gradually blurring, and this seems because of the advancement of remote working and remote management. As a result, ruminating about work becomes more prevalent among employees and managers alike. To conquer it, you need to be aware of it and take approaches to nip it in the bud. By doing this, you can improve their mental health and productivity eventually.

Cropley, Mark and Zijlstra, Fred (2011), "Work and Rumination", 10.4337/9780857931153.00061.
Boyes, A. (2019), "How to Stop Obsessing Over Your Mistakes" [online] Harvard Business Review.


Jaap de Jonge
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