How to Restore Employees’ Cognitive Resources

Topic(s): job performance, stress, wellness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2011)
Article: The Effect of Positive Events at Work on After-Work Fatigue: They Matter Most in Face of Adversity
Authors: S. Gross, N. Semmer, L. Meier, W. Ka’lin, N. Jacobshagen, F. Tschan
Reviewed by: Chelsea Rowe

No matter how rewarding or exhilarating the job, by the end of a workday, it’s not unusual to find ourselves feeling a little spent. The more negative events that pop-up throughout the course of the day, the more exhausted we find ourselves as 5 o’clock approaches. Researchers have long shown that negative events use up our limited supply of cognitive resources. Depleted cognitive resources cause us to feel exhausted, diminish self-control, and make it difficult to complete taxing mental tasks or cope with tough situations. Positive and exciting moments, albeit more favorable to negative events, can still leave us pretty drained by the end of the day.

However, little research has actually looked into how positive events affect our cognitive resources. Could it be that positive events also contribute to that “worn out” feeling or do they help to replenish our cognitive resources? Do they further exhaust us, or help us to recover from the day’s negative events?


Gross et al. (2011) asked government employees to keep several diaries, logging each day’s negative and positive experiences, and how fatigued or “spent” they felt by the end of the workday. The more negative events employees reported, the more fatigued they felt at the end of the day. Turns out that positive experiences may actually help us recover more quickly on the tough days, but only on the tough days. That is, positive events helped to replenish cognitive resources on days that were fraught with unpleasantness, but when the day wasn’t so bad, positive events did not have this protective effect. This held true whether the negative experiences were ongoing, chronic social stressors at the office (e.g., frequent conflict with colleagues, unfair treatment, etc.) or it was a one-thing-after-the-other day.


So when you see that frazzled colleague, shoot them a compliment. It doesn’t have to be related to what that person is stressed about, even if its not work-related. Demonstrate some empathy and let them know you care in some small way. Managers: this is a great opportunity to give some positive feedback. Research shows that helping to restore cognitive resources may improve performance and reduce the number of occupational accidents. So not only are you showing respect for your employees and shaping a positive work environment, you may also be boosting the bottom line. After all, there’s never a bad time to find yourself of the receiving end of a compliment.


Gross, S., Semmer, N. K., Meier, L. L., Kälin, W., Jacobshagen, N., & Tschan, F. (2011). The effect of positive events at work on after-work fatigue: They matter most in face of adversity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 654-664.

Image credit: istockphoto/jacoblund