Flow at Work: Recovery Affects Whether Employees will “Be in the Zone”

Topic(s): burnout, engagement, performance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Making flow happen: the effects of being recovered on work-related flow between and within days
Authors: M.E. Debus, S. Sonnentag, W. Deutsch & F.W. Nussbeck.
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Flow at work is an enjoyable peak experience that happens when an employee feels completely engrossed in a challenging project or activity. Not surprisingly, this kind of experience means great returns from employees in terms of performance and productivity. Unfortunately for most, it is not a permanent experience, and instead varies considerable on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Earlier research suggests that flow starts out high, dips, and then increases again, within any given day. This research sought to determine whether this was the case and also explore what the possible predictors of optimal and decreased flow may be.

WHAT IS FLOW?

Flow is a relatively complex phenomenon and consists of nine elements. I won’t list them all, but some of these include a balance between skill and challenge, the amount of control over a task, loss of self-consciousness, and sense of time loss as hours go by as you are absorbed in a task. Flow requires energy and expenditure of certain internal resources, as well as application of above average skills to a relatively difficult problem.

The researchers used the Effort Recovery Model to investigate work related flow during a given day. This theory concerns the investment of an individual’s resources into an activity that inevitably leads to depletion of the individual’s mental resources. Also included is the idea of recovery, which is a process that helps the employee restore their energy and internal resources.

 

WHEN EMPLOYEES FEEL RECOVERED

The researchers hypothesized that the extent to which someone feels recovered (meaning fresh and full of energy) at the beginning of the day, affects their energy levels and internal resource availability. This would subsequently affect flow experiences during the day. This state of recovery and higher energy level would allow greater investment of resources into more difficult tasks, increasing the likelihood of experiencing flow.

 

WHAT THEY FOUND: RESULTS ON FLOW AT WORK

The research confirmed that when employees felt more recovered than they usually do, they were more likely to experience flow during the day. As said before, that flow typically happens by starting out high, dipping, and then peaking again, in a pattern that looks like the letter U. When employees start the day in a poorly recovered state, there was a different pattern. They started low, remained low during noon-time and then experienced a further decrease in flow in the afternoon.

 

TAKEAWAY FOR ORGANIZATIONS

This study is unique in that it explored how flow interacts with situational factors, as it considered flow in light of employee resource availability within a given day. The findings are useful for employees and managers as they show that flow at work can be fostered through encouraging employee recovery. This goes beyond merely focusing on strategies that target how the work or tasks are done. Managers should also consider encouraging employees to disengage from work after hours to aid the recovery process.