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How You Can Recharge Your Batteries during a Demanding Day

How a few minutes of laughter at work can boost your well-being and performance

Vera Schweitzer / Fabiola Gerpott - January 30, 2023

Tips for practitioners

Every single one of us experiences it every day: An email here, a smartphone notification there, and in-between, someone calling us unannounced via the company’s internal communication software. With rapid technological and societal developments making business life more and more fast-paced, flexible, and unpredictable, how can we handle everything coming at us while still directing our attention toward what needs to get done? Changes in the way we work require us to frequently exert self-control to remain focused on our tasks when distractions pop up, or even to control our tempers. Researchers from WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, Trinity College Dublin, and the Universities of Wuppertal, Vienna, Graz, and Florida now show through their work that briefly breaking up the workday with something positive, such as watching a funny, three-minute YouTube video during the lunch break, can help employees combat the stress that comes with maintaining their composure while on the job. Experiencing that something positive ultimately makes them feel and perform better.

Exerting self-control at work is effortful and draining

Why should we even care about self-control and discipline? Certainly, it goes beyond keeping up with our New Year’s resolutions. We exert self-control all the time, whether at work, at home, or in other areas of our daily lives. Any moment in which we are forced to respond in a way contrarian to how we would otherwise feel, think, or behave requires self-control. For example, if you receive an email from your supervisor asking you to do some boring number crunching, it may be your first instinct to ignore the request and push it to the very last minute. But then again, if you complete this dull task immediately, you’ll be displaying your professionalism and making a good impression on your supervisor and colleagues. By getting to work, you exert self-control, which helps you to overcome the inner resistance that you experienced when first reading your supervisor’s email. Such an email is a classic example of a “self-control demand.” Another example that often occurs in daily working life is having to control your temper when dealing with an unfriendly customer or co-worker. In situations such as these, you feel a need to inhibit, adapt, or even override completely your own nature to complete an activity or task adequately.

But why is it so draining for us to exert self-control when we encounter such demands at work? Research has shown that the exertion of self-control is a particularly taxing cognitive process that depletes and diminishes our personal resources. These internal resources, also called “regulatory resources,” are required for us to feel motivated and engaged in our jobs, to think outside the box, or to help our colleagues. As is the case, we feel and perform worse if we constantly face self-control demands at work. Moreover, the depletion of regulatory resources also makes it harder to deal with future events that also require us to exercise self-control. In turn, we can find ourselves trapped in a downward spiral caused by seemingly insurmountable demands.

How a little positivity can effortlessly recharge you

This then begs the question: What can we do to prevent ourselves from heading down that dangerous path? Previous research had suggested, for example, that self-reflection or making an effort to sleep better could help us in managing self-control demands more effectively. Paradoxically, however, such proposed solutions are also quite taxing, because they also require you to exercise self-control. Just imagine having to force yourself to write a reflection on your experiences and feelings at work after a long and stressful day. Or, if we try to go to bed earlier than normal, we may need to resist distractions (e.g., incoming work emails, text messages, or a favorite TV show). Accordingly, although such activities are generally advisable, they are less likely to be effective when they require a high level of self-control.

To find a solution for this paradox, we centered our research around the power of emotions. Decades of research performed in the past has shown that emotions play a crucial role in our lives. Specifically, experiencing just a little dose of positivity—i.e., a positive emotion such as happiness—can help to restore our personal resources. Scientifically, this outcome is the result of a psychological phemonenon known as the “undoing effect.” Here, positive emotions enable people to detach themselves and recover from previous negative experiences, such as situations that demand them to exert self-control. For instance, the positive emotions felt from watching a funny video immediately after several hours of intense work helps restore our regulatory resources—without requiring us to do anything at all (apart from having to press “play”).

We tested our theoretical model with 85 currently employed people (i.e., people mainly working in science, education, or the IT industry) using a complex longitudinal survey method (i.e., experience-sampling) over the course of two weeks. Specifically, we were able to show that a short positivity intervention (e.g., a YouTube video showing a scene from the British comedy series Mr. Bean) can help us to overcome daily self-control demands (e.g., unfriendly emails or tedious tasks) at work. In turn, this allows us to be more engaged, creative, and helpful toward co-workers.

Tips for Practitioners

  • Pay attention to the self-control demands in your daily work: Whenever you have to deal with a lot of unfriendly emails popping up, endure an hours-long meeting marathon, or have to force yourself to finally finish that one task that you have been pushing off for weeks, remember: It is natural to feel stressed and drained at the end of the day.
  • Recognize the potential of such demanding moments and find something to laugh about (e.g., a funny video or conversation with a colleague) to recharge your personal resources and perform better throughout the rest of the day.
  • Change your mindset. Next time you find yourself secretly laughing at a hilarious cat video on YouTube during the lunch break—embrace it! It will help you recover from a stressful morning and prepare you for the rest of the day.
  • If you choose to break up the day with funny videos, try to avoid binge-watching. Instead, limit the positivity boost to around three to five minutes. That way, you won’t completely detach from your work and have to catch up, which would otherwise cause the very stress you were trying to avoid.
  • If you are a manager, allow your employees to have fun in the office, even if that means their focus isn’t always on their work. It will pay off in the end.
  • If you work in HR, think about how you can foster positivity among the company’s employees. For example, you could provide employees with recommendations for short funny videos via a daily newsletter or by posting a joke of the day on the intranet.

Literature reference

Schweitzer, V. M./Rivkin, W./Gerpott, F. H./Diestel, S./Kühnel, J./Prem, R./Wang, M. (2022): Some positivity per day can protect you a long way: A within-person field experiment to test an affect-resource model of employee effectiveness at work, in: Work & Stress, 1-20.

Co-authors of the study

Vera Schweitzer

Vera Schweitzer is a doctoral candidate at the Chair of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. Her research primarily focuses on micro-dynamics of organizational behavior and how short interventions can help employees to tackle the challenges of the modern working world. She is also interested in ways of sparking employees’ curiosity in order for them to feel more engaged at work.

Professor Fabiola H. Gerpott

Fabiola H. Gerpott is an expert in leadership, diversity management, and organizational behavior at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. She is committed to ensuring that diversity is valued more by both managers and employees. Her research focuses on leadership communication, diversity, and how companies can effectively shape “New Work” environments.

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