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Conquering your inner bastard after stressful workdays

Datum:13 november 2022
Auteur:Theresa J.S. Koch
Conquering your inner bastard after stressful workdays
Conquering your inner bastard after stressful workdays

By visiting researcher Theresa J. S. Koch 

Coming home after a long workday and finally sitting down on the sofa – what a great feeling! You are a bit hungry, thinking about ordering pizza. Actually, you already had pizza yesterday, but now getting up and cooking a healthy meal… No, after this long workday, you deserve pizza! You also planned to go to the gym tonight but now… impossible to even think about it. There is this strong “innerer Schweinehund” (a German saying, referring to one's weaker self), your inner bastard preventing you from any engagement in health behaviours after a long workday. Recognizable?

Regularly engaging in physical exercise and healthy eating can be challenging for employees. Indeed, more than a fourth of the adults worldwide is physically inactive and more than 1.9 billion adults are overweight. Most people are aware that it is essential to maintain a healthy lifestyle in order to stay fit and productive in the long run, but still cannot conquer their inner bastard. Thus, becoming more physically active and eating healthier food mostly remains a wish that is not implemented in employees’ daily reality.

Emergence of your inner bastard

Research has shown that employees tend to engage less in physical exercise after stressful workdays (e.g., Sonnentag & Jelden, 2009) and consume more unhealthy food after experiencing high job stressors (e.g., Liu et al., 2017). However, apart from obvious reasons, such as temporal constraints due to family obligations, or high workload and long working hours which leave little time for other time-consuming activities, there are psychological reasons impeding health behaviour after stressful workdays.

Specifically, two different perspectives may help explain the emergence of our inner bastard: (1) a self-regulation perspective prioritizing short-term above long-term goals with regard to health behaviour, and (2) a resource-regulation perspective to explain why short-term outcomes often dominate in inner struggles.

From a self-regulation perspective, seemingly dysfunctional behaviours can be explained when considering the temporal frame (Hall & Fong, 2007). Individuals are less likely to engage in behaviours that seem to imply high costs at the time of executing these behaviours (“proximal costs”) – despite their long-term benefits (“distal benefits”). Whilst engaging in physical exercise and healthy eating after a stressful workday may imply high and very concrete proximal costs (e.g., inconvenience and discomfort), these behaviours only include vague, distal benefits (e.g., potentially increased health and well-being in the far future).

But why are the proximal costs especially salient? Here the resource-regulation perspective comes into play. Importantly, the most crucial moment takes place when we make the decision – that is, when we come home from work, after a stressful workday. In this very moment, we experience a natural tendency to avoid further efforts, so that the proximal costs, such as coming up with a healthy meal idea, preparing a shopping list, buying the groceries and cooking, may be more salient than potential distal benefits (e.g., losing weight and staying healthy). From a resource-regulation perspective, employees aim to protect their (remaining) energetic resources after a stressful workday (Hobfoll, 1989). Thus, when an employee’s energy is already depleted, employees rather want to refill their energy, i.e., following the natural tendency to avoid additional efforts, instead of using more energy to execute strenuous behaviours that imply high proximal costs and only distal benefits – such as physical exercise and healthy eating.

Beating your inner bastard

So, applying the two perspectives above, we now understand our inner bastard better. How can we beat it and engage in the health behaviours we prefer?

First, health behaviour interventions including goal setting approaches may be fruitful behaviour change techniques. More precisely, employees may be instructed to set health behaviour goals (e.g., take 10,000 steps or eat fruit as snacks) and develop clear plans how to achieve such goals.

The concept of implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1999) – “if-then-plans” – may support goal progress. Examples could be “If the weather is good when I come home from work, I will go out for a run” (for a physical-exercise goal) or “If I get hungry, I will snack berries” (for a healthy-eating goal). Such plans may support the integration of health behaviour after stressful workdays, because one has a clear plan and does not need to think a lot anymore.

Second, building habits and routines can be meaningful (Verhoeven et al., 2012). For example, you can already prepare your sports bag and put it right at the door so that you can immediately come into action when you come home from work. Thinking costs effort – after a stressful workday, you want to avoid the efforts because your energy is low. Having already prepared everything beforehand will ease thinking efforts and reduce the cognitive load – thus help avoid the decision-making moment right after work to be driven by low energy. The decision is not only set before, but the behaviour is already well prepared, and you do not need to think about it anymore. In addition, you can set regular appointments with colleagues or friends to cook or exercise together, because this social commitment may further facilitate goal-supportive decision-making right after work when energy is low.

And, if you read this post until here, then you should go for a walk now.

Learn more about setting implementation intentions and building habits: www.developgoodhabits.com/tracker/

Theresa J. S. Koch (t.koch uni-mannheim.de) is a research associate at the Chair of Work and Organizational Psychology and the University of Mannheim and Ph.D. candidate within the research training group “Statistical Modeling in Psychology” (https://www.uni-mannheim.de/smip/team/phd-candidates/cohort-2019/theresa-koch/). Her research centres around health behaviour in daily work life – including perspectives on self-regulation, goal striving, and well-being. 

References and further reading

To learn more about the theoretical explanations:

Hall, P. A., & Fong, G. T. (2007). Temporal self-regulation theory: A model for individual health behavior. Health Psychology Review, 1(1), 6-52. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437190701492437

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44(3), 513-524. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.44.3.513

To learn more about the strategies:

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493-503. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.54.7.493

Verhoeven, A. A., Adriaanse, M. A., Evers, C., & de Ridder, D. T. (2012). The power of habits: Unhealthy snacking behaviour is primarily predicted by habit strength. British Journal of Health Psychology, 17(4), 758-770. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8287.2012.02070.x

To read some empirical examples:

Liu, Y., Song, Y., Koopmann, J., Wang, M., Chang, C.-H. (D.), & Shi, J. (2017). Eating your feelings? Testing a model of employees’ work-related stressors, sleep quality, and unhealthy eating. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(8), 1237-1258. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000209

Sonnentag, S., & Jelden, S. (2009). Job stressors and the pursuit of sport activities: A day-level perspective. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 14(2), 165-181. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014953