With Memorial Day weekend fast approaching, you've probably already made plans for your extra day off from the job. Although disappointment is a risk whenever hope runs too high, you know your expectations are in check. But what you most likely don't know (and what you might want to share with your boss) is that research supports your claims that you absolutely need, and will benefit, from the three-day weekend ahead.

More Time = Less Stress

Wanting to test whether productivity and well-being are enhanced by extra time off from the job, Dr. E. Kevin Kelloway, Ph.D., research chair in occupational health psychology at Saint Mary's University, drummed up 30 volunteers to participate in an impromptu study. With Patrick Horsman, he asked the volunteers, all of whom were employed full-time, to complete questionnaires over two weekends - a regular two-day weekend and a long three-day weekend. Before each weekend, participants completed measures of well-being and stress recovery on Friday and then did the same one day following their return to work; for a regular weekend, individuals completed the second questionnaire on Tuesday, and for a long weekend they completed it on Wednesday.

As any employee worth her salt would have predicted, individuals reported more stress recovery on long weekends than on a regular two-day weekend. As expected, participants also reported more positive job attitudes following a long weekend compared to a regular weekend. What is surprising, however, is that on average, participants did not report any increase in recovery over the two-day weekend. None!

"Over long weekends, individuals are better able to detach from, and recover from, their work situation," reported Kelloway. "In contrast, almost no recovery happened on a regular two day weekend - we believe this is because weekends are frequently spent doing necessary chores and errands rather than relaxing."

The data, though limited, supports the notion that a long weekend is good for the short-term mental health of employees.

Better Rest = More Control

The exact nature of a job matters tremendously to most people. Some will happily trade greater freedom for higher pay, others will make lifestyle sacrifices in order to earn the big(ger) bucks. It turns out, choices about job characteristics not only affect our paychecks and self-esteem, but also predict how well we are able to recover on our time away from the job.

And this impacts our health.

Researchers found that one work characteristic, specifically the amount of control an employee exercises on the job, affects an employee's ability to recover on the weekend. Recovery, according to the authors, can be seen as a process of psychophysiological unwinding after an effort of expenditure. It can take place at work during pauses (internal recovery) and during non-working time, for instance, in the evenings and on weekends (external recovery).

A total of 69 blue- and white-collar workers participated in the study. Researchers established cortisol level, which is commonly affected by emotional and physical stress, as an indicator of recovery. They measured salivary cortisol on two workdays as well as on a subsequent rest day (a Sunday), in addition to analyzing responses to a questionnaire created to assess recuperation from work. Controlling for factors that might influence cortisol level, such as gender, the researchers found that the level of control an employee experienced in the workplace could predict cortisol levels on a rest day. Specifically, individuals with less job control had higher cortisol levels, and consequently poorer recovery on the rest day than those with more control.

Unexpectedly, the level of demand on the job did not predict a change in cortisol levels from workday to rest day. "The negative correlation between job demands and workday cortisol levels is somewhat surprising and counterintuitive," the authors wrote.

A lack of control at work impairs physiological recovery during one of the central recuperation periods. "Insufficient psychophysiological unwinding implies a sustained overactivation of physiological stress systems that may become chronic in the long run," the authors, including Martial Berset, Department of Psychology, wrote. "Researchers agree that such chronic overactivation can have severe consequences for health and wellbeing." The importance of recovery, then, with respect to long-term health should be considered crucial to ensure job control at the workplace, the authors concluded.

The impact of long weekends on mental health and well-being should not be forgotten, either. Armed as you are now with knowledge of these two studies, you should have no trouble unwinding this Memorial Day weekend. Happy resting!

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Source: Berset M, Semmer NK, Elfering A, Amstad FT, Jacobshagen N. Work characteristics as predictors of physiological recovery on weekends. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health. 2009.