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Hobbies and Mental Health in the Workplace

What do you do just for you? I look at walls.

We spend so much time in the work, hustle, accumulate head-space that it can be difficult to keep clear boundaries between who we are at work, who we are for others, and who we are just for us. In my many roles, I'm always trying to understand the thinking of my coaching clients, users in the design space, participants in the training space. While I find the work hugely rewarding, I spend so much time in the head space of others that I must be strict with myself in creating space for me. I do this by maintaining an active range of interests and hobbies.

We need to make an active effort to set aside time for our own head space, our own thoughts, interests and identity.

The word 'hobby' sounds almost too frivolous for the incredible value it holds. A basic definition of a hobby is ‘an activity done regularly in one's leisure time for pleasure.’ I’m sensing the groans, ‘what’s leisure time?’

Carving out ‘leisure time’ for many comes down to time-management and balance. This is not easily achieved but when addressed in coaching sessions, client’s often find the issue is one of perception. We need to question, how we perceive our values and priorities to identify free time. It is important to understand how we perceive and differentiate our work-based actions, our distractions and our recovery time. This can take time to explore and evaluate, but this is never time wasted.

What are the implications of a life without leisure and hobbies? ‘In societies that do not value leisure, people are not able to reconcile work and family, have little time for cultivating hobbies, and find it difficult to engage in civic activities that would nourish a democratic society.’ A grim state described in After Work Is Done: Psychological Perspectives on Recovery from Work. Zijlstra and Sonnentag go on to describe how many of us see leisure as ‘escapism,’ suggesting ‘this means that people do not seek meaningful leisure activities for their own growth and development, but, instead, resort to passive activities to escape from everyday strains and problems.’

More than just Escapism

While hobbies are performed for personal gratification, they have also been proven to have a positive impact on workplace performance, in particular, creative hobbies. Creative hobbies are shown to facilitate mastery, control and relaxation. Kevin Eschleman, in his paper for The British Psychological Society Benefiting from Creative Activity: The positive relationships between creative activity, recovery experiences, and performance‐related outcomes claims, “organizations may benefit from encouraging employees to consider creative activities in their efforts to recover from work. Creative activities are likely to provide valuable experiences of mastery and control, but may also provide employees experiences of discovery that uniquely influence performance-related outcomes.”

Eschleman rightly argues that instruction on hobbies should be included in wider health-based discussion and induction in organisations due to the immense value in staving off the many work-based stresses. This is something I have discussed with clients on a consultancy basis recently in relation to workplace health and safety, the broadening of the definition which will inevitably come to include mental health.

With a recognised increase in students arriving at third level institutions registering with mental health conditions, there must at some level an awareness and expectation that this will have an impact in the workplace. As an innovation consult who focuses on people and leads graduate programs, I’m wondering is enough being done currently and are companies prepared or preparing to facilitate our millennial and Gen Z workers, who it is suggested experience more mental health problems. More Links(1,2, 3, 4)

“Health and well-being are related to both people’s work and leisure activities. Mental health problems (e.g., psychological complaints such as burnout, depressive feelings, and stress-related complaints) are currently the fastest-growing category mentioned among long term absentees from work, indicating that this is a serious problem.”

New York: The City That Never Sleeps

Never had I been so exposed to the work, hustle, accumulate mindset than during a research trip to New York some years back where I had an opportunity to speak to several resident New Yorkers. I was struck by one consistent theme of their ‘casual’ conversation, work. I heard numerous accounts listing first, second and third jobs, and the night time college course. Hustle and accumulate, fine, but with no opportunity to pause and communicate with the self, this system becomes counterproductive.

There is no space is this constant ‘work-spend-work-spend’ paradigm for recovery, let alone achieving any sense of Flow which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi associates with pleasure, happiness and long lasting satisfaction. This consistent stress state negatively impacts the hippocampus which is at particular threat from stress hormones like cortisol, due in part to its high levels of glucocorticoid receptors. This creates challenges for memory, emotional regulation and learning, having a clear impact on our performance in the workplace and enjoyment of life outside.

How do people ‘recover’ from the stresses of work? According to John T Haworth, author of Work, Leisure and Well-Being, primarily by watching TV. I would also suggest the smart phone creates an opportunity for unfulfilling escape for many. Haworth defines this particular form of ‘recovery,’ as escapism much like Zijlstra and Sonnentag. Average screen time is now rated anywhere between 3.5 hours in Europe and up to 6 hours in part of the US. Clearly this has a range of impacts, communication skills, eye sight, sleep disruption and mental health implications.

‘Enjoyable leisure activities are associated with lower blood pressure, smaller waist circumference, and a lower body mass index. People also feel better physically and are less likely to be depressed.’

Why Hobbies Work

Whether your hobby is creative, physical, tinkering in a maker-space or reading, there are benefits. Taking time to pause, time for yourself, time away from pressure, expectation, and results determined by others, has the capacity to reduce the presence of stress hormones like cortisol and increase hormones associated with increased feelings of wellbeing like serotonin and dopamine. You are in a position to determine your own rewards, or decide whether the activity is reward enough. The pressure of expectation is reduced when hobbies and leisure time are managed appropriately. You are in a space where you don’t have to be perfect.

Simler and Hanson in their 2018 text, The Elephant in The Brain describe the experience of many office workers, in their account of the modern office, stating, ‘office workers, being primates, are constantly jockeying to keep or improve their position in the hierarchy, whether by dominance displays, squabbles over territory, or active confrontations. None of these behaviors is surprising to find in a species as social and political as ours.’ How important is it for modern worker to have an opportunity or space where they can allow themselves to perform against perfection and expectation unburdened by status.

Looking at Walls

Odd as it might sound, among many other things, I enjoy walls. Wandering the streets taking photos of ‘interesting’ walls is a hobby of mine. I see rhythm, tonal & textural exchanges, light, shade, variegation, recesses, voids & projections, the whole & the parts, a composition & the communication between features. I see borders, boundaries, transitions, liminal spaces, access & denial. I see evidence of age & distress, strength, juxtapositions, symmetry, asymmetry, balance & beauty, & I allow myself time to explore & appreciate these features.

And if nobody else can see any if that, that's perfectly ok, because I do it just for me. I have no desire to financially capitalise on this hobby by turning it into my ‘side-hustle.’ It’s relaxing, I get away from the desk, it reinforces my curiosity and creativity, it gives me time to think about something other than my responsibilities and I genuinely enjoy and feel rewarded when I find a nice wall 😊

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