Rumination? Repetitive, intrusive, almost involuntary thoughts about work. Mark Croply, a health psychologist has made a study of the area. He found between two-thirds and three-quarters of people say they find it “difficult to unwind after work.” A full quarter of all sorts of people say they think about work-related issues in their leisure time, including holidays, weekends and extended breaks.
This is not about work-life balance as much as work-life boundaries. It is about not letting work issues dominate outside work, during leisure activities.
A report I read online in Leisure Studies investigated the typical behaviors of high and low ruminators. Predictably the former had “live to work” and the latter “work to live” philosophies. High ruminators were not actually clear about their contractual hours of work (meaning 35-45 hours per week), so weren’t clear how much they were overworking. It was in part an element of their work culture, but it was also their choice.
The problem is worse for those who experience the Zeigarnik effect, discovered 80 years ago. Unfinished, incomplete tasks are remembered better than completed tasks which are “put-to-bed,” and part “erased from the system.” For those working on long-term, complex projects that are rarely easily completed, it is all the easier to dwell on them at home.
Interestingly, healthy low ruminators were more intrinsically, rather than extrinsically motivated. There was a big difference in how they coped. High ruminators seemed to withdraw and get cut off from social contacts more, both at and after work. But low ruminators seemed to do the opposite. They had more fulfilled leisure and much more work-family harmony.
The question is, what differentiates those who can, and do, throw the big red switch on the journey home and those who can’t let go and pull out the plug? The news is not good for the ruminators. They are six times as likely – compared to non-ruminators – to report problems with concentration, five times as likely to experience anxiety and other somatic symptoms, and four times as likely to report fatigue, depression, irritability and worry. Their stress hormones are higher all the time and they are particularly prone to “cognitive errors”: all those little mistakes and forgetfulness that we experience on a daily basis. Ruminators are tired, moody and poor at decision making.
There are acute and chronic consequences of this ability to unwind. Sleep problems and mood disorders can lead to psychiatric and cardiovascular disease.
The idea is not that different from the ‘90s concept of workaholism: a sad, sick addiction to work. Here the individual puts work above everything else for the psychological functions it promises to fulfil: self-respect and self-esteem; identity. The paradox with workaholics is that they are often not that productive. They work hard not “smart.” And over time they lose sense of their priorities. They are seen as pathetic rather than heroic, compensators not fulfillers.
Workaholics stay at work. Ruminators take it home, at least in their heads. This means they have little or no time for restorative leisure, for recreational activities, for time to recharge their batteries. As a result they don’t allow themselves the all-important incubation period, so well understood by creativity researchers, who know that it is best to stop working on a problem in order to solve it.
Ruminators need to be taught how to switch off. Ultimately, it is a lot better for them and the people that they work for that they do. A tired, obsessed, error-prone worker is no good to anyone.
So ruminators need to be encouraged; given permission; and taught how to relax. To take time out; enjoy friends and family. A burnt-out, fatigued employee is a less productive employee.