In a recent study, virtually all the subjects felt better in all ways starting at day’s end on Friday and continuing right up until punch-in time on Monday.
In the 1930’s, there was a movie with Frederick March called Death Takes a Holiday (remade with Brad Pitt about 10 years ago as “Meet Joe Black.” Well, surprise, surprise, we now know exactly when Death takes his holidays — on weekends. A new study has confirmed the fairly obvious — that both men and women feel better on weekends, no matter what sort of job they have.
The study, just published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, followed 74 individuals aged 18-62, all of whom worked at least 30 hours a week. The researchers gave all the subjects pagers and then contacted them at random times at least three times daily, and this continued for three weeks. Every time the subjects got beeped, they answered a series of questions about what activity they were involved in and how they felt, rating happiness, joy, pleasure, anger, anxiety, depression, and other emotional attributes on a seven-point scale. They also rated physical symptoms such as low-energy, headache, digestive problems, respiratory issues, backaches, and so on, plus indicated how close they felt to the people around them, and whether they felt competent and autonomous. It turned out that virtually all the subjects felt better in all ways starting at day’s end on Friday and continuing right up until punch-in time on Monday.
The “weekend effect” held no matter the age of the subjects, no matter their educational level or how much money they made or whether married or divorced and even regardless of how many hours they worked. It even held regardless of profession or whether the subject worked as an hourly laborer or in a high-level professional job.
Consistently, respondents noted that they felt more autonomous on weekends, and that they felt closer to the people around them. They also felt more competent away from work, a rather counterintuitive finding given that work is supposedly where people do what they’re good at. These factors, says study author Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester, account for the improved outlook on weekends.
“When people are working they feel less autonomy, they feel less choice, they feel less freedom, and they also aren’t with the people they love (except in special cases), whereas when you’re not working you’re much more likely to be making your own decisions and to be with people you l
What about those poor people who must work on weekends? Apparently, even they show an improvement in outlook once Friday night arrives. “What we found is that period from Friday to Sunday night, everybody feels a little bit better, even those who are working,” says Dr. Ryan. “And we think that’s probably because cool things are happening on the weekend, that’s when events are happening. And there’s also a social contagion effect, since other people are happy, that might affect even you.”
As I’ve reported in the past, other studies show that moods are contagious. A study late last year found that people who associate with lonely people tend to become lonely themselves. Earlier in the year, another study found that happiness spreads from person to person, and it can spread far and wide from the original jovial individual. In fact, your happiness can affect others at up to three degrees of separation. This viral factor may, as Dr. Ryan proposes, affect everyone on Saturdays and Sundays when joy is in the air, and on weekdays in the office when relative misery rules. Even if you like your job, if people around you are shuffling like zombies to get through the day, it might take a toll.
But as the authors point out, work “is replete with activities involving external controls, time pressures, and demands on behavior related to work, child care and other constraints.” Everyone needs a break from these constraints, and with work increasingly spilling into personal time on weekends and evenings in the form of emails and text messages, many now get less of a break than in the past.
“Our findings highlight just how important free time is to an individual’s well-being,” the authors write. “Far from frivolous, the relatively unfettered time on weekends provides critical opportunities for bonding with others, exploring interests and relaxing — basic psychological needs that people should be careful not to crowd out with overwork.”
What do these findings say about the structure of work environments in general? Apparently, most work really does leave something to be desired in terms of nurturing the body and soul. We have come to accept that work involves pressure, constraint, criticism, and time away from loved ones. Work relationships are expected to be kept “professional,” which means, generally, friendly but not intimate. The fact that most respondents felt more competent at home than at work speaks to just how life-inhibiting work can be.
Interestingly, a study that just came out discovered that employees who have control over their work schedules, who are allowed flex-time and so forth, had lower blood pressure and better health overall. It seems obvious that employers would benefit in the long-run by creating more human, nurturing places to work instead of cracking the whip. Dr. Ryan emphasizes that interventions need to be introduced that make the workplace less alienating and more supportive. Among those interventions might be offering employees more generous time off. Says Dr. Ryan, “When people have free time, it’s really rejuvenating and it brings something to them. I think that’s something they probably take back to their workplaces….there’s a lot of building evidence that shows that vacations and free time are really important.”
And keep in mind it isn’t just a touchy feely question of “feeling” better. It’s a matter of life and death. Numerous studies have shown that blood pressure increases as people head to work Monday morning, heart attacks peak, and even death itself makes up for taking weekends off by spiking on Monday morning. That’s right, a higher percentage of deaths occur Monday morning before work than during any other time during the week. It would seem that although death takes a holiday on weekends, he goes back to work Monday morning.