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How to Recover from Overwork

Organizations and senior leaders often try to improve profitability and productivity by demanding more — more hours, more projects, more email, and more output.

But focusing on “more” may be a mistake. After a certain point, additional hours at work don’t necessarily translate into additional productivity. Excess busyness and long hours can actually produce more errors, lead to declines in employee health, and lead people to emphasize reactiveness over proactiveness.

In fact, companies might be better served by giving their people opportunities to recover from periods of intense work, so their minds can clear and they can recognize what’s most important.

Leadership Muscles Need Recovery

With physical fitness, rest is essential for muscles to recover and grow stronger after exercise. Leadership muscles are similar, and require opportunities to recover, too.

Companies can help employees step back and pause. In the process, they can help increase workforce resiliency, boost energy and passion about work, and reduce costs associated with stress, illness, and employee turnover.

There will always be times when you need to pick up the pace of work and ask everyone to sprint. But these high activity times need to be balanced with periods of recovery. The key for any organization or individual to be sustainable and competitive over the long term is balance.

5 Key Recovery Practices

At one time or another, we’ve all engaged in recovery behaviors. Sometimes it means taking that “mental health day” at the end of a busy quarter, or taking a day just to be outside in nature.

For others, it might mean carving out time to reconnect with friends, or even going on a long run to shed the stress of a tough day.

Though we all might have our preferences, research points to 5 key recovery practices:

1. Sleep. Sufficient sleep is a biological necessity for our physical and mental health. Sleep can also make you a better leader. Yet polls consistently find that almost half of adults get less than the recommended amount of sleep.

2. Exercise. Most corporate workers have sedentary jobs — sitting at a desk rather than engaging in physical activity — that are bracketed by commutes spent sitting in cars, buses, or trains. Physical activity can boost energy, mood, cognition, and performance. In fact, exercise and leadership effectiveness are closely linked.

3. Mental recovery. Being able to stay attentive and focused is critical to high performance. But that’s increasingly difficult with the ever-present notifications from digital devices and workdays that can extend far beyond the traditional workday. Contemplative practices such as meditation can allow your mind to regain focus and clarity. Mindfulness exercises can train your brain to be better focused, resulting in clearer thinking.

4. Social recovery. Humans are social animals. Connecting, caring, and sharing with others can lower stress levels and boost moods. Organizations need to find ways to encourage positive social interactions on the job and outside of work.

5. Gratitude. Positive emotions can increase energy and creativity. Work cultures are great at identifying the negative, but could be more intentional about identifying good and meaningful experiences at work. Giving thanks can actually make you a better leader, and can enhance mood and well-being, too.

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