Working, studying during ‘off’ hours can hurt your motivation

ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s no secret the pandemic has changed the work-life balance for countless Americans over the last two years. Remote work, remote learning, and hybrid schedules are much more common nowadays in the post-COVID reality, but researchers from Cornell University suggest working or studying during “off” hours may be holding many back from find the motivation necessary to succeed.

“Even if you’re still working 40 hours a week, you’re working during time that you’ve mentally encoded as time off, or as time that should be for a vacation, and that can make you feel suddenly that your work is less enjoyable,” says Kaitlin Woolley, an associate professor of marketing in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, in a university release.

Prof. Wooley and Laura Giurge, assistant professor of behavioral science at London School of Economics and a former postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell, set out to investigate the effect of working (or studying) during “off,” non-traditional times among college students on both overall job satisfaction and motivation.

“We had this feeling that sometimes the ability to work when we want to could also impact how we feel about our work,” Prof. Woolley adds.

Working on holidays can be a buzzkill

One experiment entailed approaching various Cornell undergrad students studying at the campus library on President’s Day. Researchers gave half of the students a reminder they were studying during a federal holiday, while the other half did not get this reminder. Then, the team measured each students’ “intrinsic motivation” regarding their schoolwork. More specifically, they asked students how fun, enjoyable, interesting, or engaging they considered their assignments. Notably, students told they were studying on a holiday reported their work was 15 percent less enjoyable.

Another experiment employed a simple calendar reminder. When a group of full-time employees saw a calendar reminding them that they were working on Martin Luther King Day, the workers reported a nine percent reduction in work enjoyment that particular day – even though they were performing the same work they always do on Mondays.

A third experiment involved surveying workers on a normal Tuesday, and then again on a Saturday. Some of those subjects were reminded on Saturday that it was the weekend, while another portion was given no reminder. While both groups reported lower work engagement and motivation on Saturday in comparison to Tuesday, the reminder group was even less motivated and satisfied.

Everybody’s working for the ‘weekend’

Study authors believe the de-motivating impact of working or studying during “off-time” has a connection to the notion of “collective time off,” or enjoying free time while friends and family are also off.

“The real benefit of time off on the weekend or on holidays is that it’s not just that I have time off, but my family and friends have time off, too,” Prof. Woolley explains. “And so one thing that we suggest for managers is, can you create a ‘weekend shift’ so people feel like they’re in it together with other people?”

The idea of a “work-life balance” existed long before COVID-19 forced so many people to work from their living rooms, but the importance of separating one’s job from the rest of their life is especially important today. Unfortunately, it’s also that much more difficult for many to disconnect when the home and the office are one in the same.

“It’s hard sometimes for workers who aren’t in a position of power, whereas I think managers have the responsibility to create that environment for their employees,” she concludes. “I do think people are becoming more aware of the importance of that, and shaping their jobs and their life choices to allow for it.”

The study is published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

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