Friday, 18 December 2015

Look on the bright side – economic recessions mean workers get more sleep and free time

For understandable reasons, we usually think of economic slumps as bad times. But a new paper in The Journal of Occupational Health Psychology has uncovered a silver lining – during these periods, employed people enjoy more free time and more sleep.

Looking at patterns across American states between 2003 and 2010 – spanning the Great Recession which began 2007 – Christopher Barnes’ team found that worsening of the economy, as indexed by unemployment rates, was significantly related to workers sleeping more and spending more time enjoying leisure activities.

When the economy was at its lowest point, compared to its highest, workers were sleeping an average of ten minutes more per week and enjoying an extra 21 minutes of recreational activities. While this doesn’t sound like a lot, consider firstly that like all averages, some individuals may be enjoying much more than that, and secondly that such dividends may not be evenly distributed in time, but come as special bonuses – visiting an extra sports game each month, for instance, or avoiding a quarterly all-nighter, which is otherwise likely to spoil a run of following days.

The data, drawn from over 34,000 participants using an ongoing survey at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed that the reason for this was simple: during economic dips, workers spend fewer hours on the job. There is unlikely to be a single reason for this: in some cases, companies will explicitly reduce employee hours to offset lower revenue, in others formal hours may be unchanged but workers simply find themselves with less to do. This joins other evidence that shows how macro-economic trends can effect people’s behaviour patterns: for instance, in poorer economic periods, workplace accidents drop in frequency, fewer people marry or divorce, but more children are conceived. In each case, the big picture shapes the little one.

When business picks up, that’s good news for organisations, but it demands that employees rein in the recharge activities important for their long-term engagement. Management should be aware of burnout risks during growth periods, and deploy resources to ensure that people aren’t sacrificing their life to sustain that growth. And during the low points, we should take heart that people are getting more opportunities for replenishing themselves. These breathing periods can be a chance to invest in activities with long-term benefits: to take up exercise and develop new skills. Or, simply, to enjoy some idle time.


Barnes, C., Lefter, A., Bhave, D., & Wagner, D. (2015). The Benefits of Bad Economies: Business Cycles and Time-Based Work–Life Conflict. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0039896

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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