In this study, we set out to examine how unfinished tasks and progress towards finishing them through supplemental work during the weekend contribute to recovery experiences in terms of psychological detachment from work, relaxation, autonomy, and mastery experiences. We scrutinized our hypotheses derived from an integration of the Ovsiankina effect and control theory based on a comprehensive week-level longitudinal study.
4.1. Theoretical Implications
First, our study provides evidence that the Ovsiankina effect is one mechanism that accounts for why employees engage in supplemental work during the weekend. More specifically, unfinished tasks are positively associated with resuming work after hours, a finding which is consistent with the empirical evidence from the classic experimental studies [5
]. In this sense, our results suggest that, in working life in the 21st century, the implications of the Zeigarnik effect and the Ovsiankina effect may be more topical than ever. Hence, understanding the contingencies of these mechanisms is key to successfully managing work–life balance from the perspectives of employers and employees. At a minimum, unfinished tasks can be considered one major driver of recovery impairment besides other phenomena implied by the ubiquity of ICT in employees’ private lives (e.g., receiving cues from colleagues, expectations of permanent availability) [6
]. Our results also inform the emerging literature on ICT use and how it relates to recovery and health, e.g., [44
Second, drawing on control theory [16
], we examined boundary conditions for the detrimental effects of unfinished tasks on recovery experiences during the weekend. Consistent with the Zeigarnik effect, unfinished tasks have been shown to be associated with a lack of switching off and with rumination after work [1
]. In this study, we extended the scope beyond rumination and a lack of detachment to the recovery experiences of relaxation, autonomy, and mastery. We studied how these states are affected by unfinished tasks at the week-level over a period of several months. Our broad approach is in line with recent conceptualizations of how leisure is linked to well-being [20
]. In sum, we found that unfinished tasks are associated with lower levels of recovery, particularly in terms of detachment. However, relaxation tended to be only negatively related to unfinished tasks, while autonomy and mastery were not affected by unfinished tasks. In line with our assumptions derived from control theory [16
], making significant progress towards finishing tasks by engaging in supplemental work during the weekend neutralized these recovery-impairing effects. As illustrated in Figure 2
and Figure 3
, the recovery inhibiting effects of unfinished tasks on detachment and relaxation are neutralized when employees make significant progress towards finishing tasks or even complete their unfinished tasks during the weekend. Making progress seems to imply a reduction in uncertainty, and feelings of confidence that the task has been adequately finished emerge [13
], freeing resources that can be used to detach from work and relax during the remaining leisure time. Consequently, our metaphor of experiencing relief after having made significant progress seems to be quite an accurate description of the dynamics at work. Our results suggests that behaviors that result in attaining incomplete goals might contribute to recovery by eliminating the cause of perseverative thoughts [15
]. Although they require some effort in the short run, they may turn out to be adaptive and beneficial after a while.
Third, we examined whether engaging in supplemental work during the weekend for different reasons, such as finishing tasks from the previous week or preparing for the next week, makes a difference. We further concurrently studied the effects of different types of supplemental work and regular work. Although in the full sample all reasons for supplemental work negatively predicted detachment, a differential pattern emerged for the other recovery experiences: Engaging in supplemental work—no matter what the reasons were—did not significantly impair relaxation, autonomy, or mastery. Our results therefore suggest that the detrimental effects of engaging in supplemental work are largely confined to impairing switching off during the weekend. In contrast, engaging in regular work was consistently linked to lower levels of detachment, relaxation, and autonomy—a finding that highlights that our distinction between working for reasons that range from largely extrinsic (regular work) to intrinsic regulation (supplemental work for other reasons) may be relevant for understanding when and why working during the weekend comes at the cost of recovery [33
]. Interestingly, working for reasons other than catching up or needing to prepare for the next week even yielded beneficial effects for mastery experiences. This result suggests that working, for instance, for intrinsic reasons [33
] out of interest in job-related tasks may be conducive to positive recovery experiences [45
] and contribute to an experience of competence need satisfaction, but this comes at the cost of not switching off. This finding corroborates empirical evidence on the potentially beneficial effects of problem-solving pondering as a positive way of being preoccupied with work-related issues during leisure time [12
]. In this sense, our results indicate that the value of challenging activities during leisure time for recovery and health [47
], besides activities fostering hedonic well-being in terms of relaxation and detachment, cannot be underestimated. Experiencing “a fair day’s work” during leisure time, for instance through progress by means of supplemental work, may convey a sense of meaning and therefore be a powerful driver of eudaimonic well-being [20
Fourth, we have questioned that supplemental work after hours is unambiguously detrimental to employee recovery. Although, as shown in Figure 4
, we found that supplemental work to finish tasks was associated with lower levels of autonomy, our results suggest that these behaviors may not yield adverse effects, as long as they result in significant progress towards goal accomplishment. One can speculate whether significant progress enabled employees to perceive their remaining leisure time as more under their control—as being freed from the urge to finish tasks. The feeling of relief that accompanies the perception of progress [12
] might trigger the perception of having more control over the subsequent time off work. In this sense, our study corroborates findings from prior research that new ways of working and opportunities for supplemental work per se may not necessarily result in impaired recovery from job stressors [31
] and may not contribute to a further build-up of strain. Although supplemental work at first sight comes at the cost of not disengaging from work, it does not necessarily hamper recovery experiences, particularly when it results in progress.
4.2. Practical Implications
Given the ubiquity of unfinished tasks and the abundance of cues reminding individuals about the things left undone during their leisure time (e.g., by ICT) [6
], we need to identify leverage points for interventions from a practical perspective. Smit [11
] recently introduced an intervention aimed at improving coping with incomplete goals by means of making plans for which steps to take next to complete tasks. He provides empirical evidence that at least highly involved individuals benefited from this strategy. Besides changing perceptions of unfinished tasks before they spill over into leisure time, the results of our study imply that tools which facilitate effectively
finishing work in leisure time may be another approach worthy of consideration, as this strategy may minimize the potentially detrimental effects of hours worked during leisure time and at the same time foster progress towards attaining goals. Therefore, scheduling a clearly defined time window for finishing a specific task through supplemental work after hours may be a viable alternative to bear the tension emanating from unfinished tasks while not at work. In this sense, successful
supplemental work provides a basis for detachment and relaxation thereafter.
Finally, performance expectations of supervisors have been shown to moderate the positive link between unfinished tasks and rumination [1
]. Hence, setting realistic performance expectations may be a viable option to avoid detrimental effects on recovery experiences before they even arise.
4.3. Strengths and Limitations
Although this study features some considerable strengths in terms of study design and analysis (week-level diary study over a period of four months, separation of predictors and criteria, applying reliable measures, and focusing on effects at the intraindividual level), we must also concede some limitations.
First, our data come from a single source and are confined to self-reports: However, the focal interactions cannot easily be attributed to third variables. Although retrospective reports on the recovery experiences over a period of two days may not be as accurate as momentary assessments [50
], within our analyses at the intraindividual level, these biases may be constant within persons and hopefully not affect results dramatically.
Second, although we have examined the hypotheses on the Ovsiankina effect and the role of supplemental work based on the full sample, with regard to the focal sample, we have a high percentage of missing data, particularly due to the fact that not every participant engaged in either supplemental or regular work after hours during all weekends studied. Our analyses regarding Hypotheses 4 and 5, however, relied on engaging in work during the weekend as a prerequisite to make progress. Still, on average the analyses refer to nearly four observations per participant, providing for enough power to examine random effects and find evidence for interactions at the intraindividual level. To examine whether the focal sample might differ in terms of individual differences, we regressed membership in the focal (vs. the full) sample on demographics, but did not find individual differences in terms of demographics to be related to membership in the focal sample—a finding that does not strongly indicate self-selection. Furthermore, comparing the full sample and the focal sample suggests that bivariate correlations and the pattern of results regarding Hypothesis 2 yielded quite consistent results. In this sense, the focal sample may provide a fairly accurate and representative picture of the full sample during the period studied. However, we have studied a sample of highly educated individuals, who have taken the effort to participate in our study over the course of four months. Therefore, our results may not necessarily generalize to samples that differ in terms of education or involvement.
Third, although most of our scales were highly reliable at the interindividual and the intraindividual levels, our measure of autonomy reached only acceptable to good reliability and may therefore capture heterogeneous aspects within one scale. Although our one-item measure of progress towards finishing tasks appears to be parsimonious and face-valid, it does not allow rigorously probing reliability. The pattern of correlations with the other variables, however, suggests that we measured something clearly distinct from unfinished tasks, supplemental work after hours, and recovery experiences. However, future research should aim at more reliable measurement, using a multi-item scale to capture progress.
Fourth, although we captured focal predictors and criteria at different points in time and our analyses basically refer to the intraindividual level, we cannot establish a causal effect from unfinished tasks on Friday to recovery experiences during the weekend. Future research might aim to corroborate our findings using even more rigorous designs and analytical approaches outlined in the future research section below.
Despite these shortcomings, to us this study appears to be a well-balanced compromise between the need for scientific rigor and aspects of feasibility in applied field research. From our perspective, taking all limitations into account, the study still offers a non-trivial step forward to understanding the dynamics of recovery as implied by the Zeigarnik and the Ovsiankina effects.
4.4. Avenues for Future Research
In this study, we have taken a broad perspective on four aspects of recovery experiences proposed by Fritz and Sonnentag [51
]. However, more recent conceptualizations of how leisure experiences contribute to subjective well-being [20
] propose additional aspects which may be relevant, but go beyond the four-facet approach developed by Sonnentag and Fritz [17
]. More specifically, in their DRAMMA model Newman and colleagues [20
] propose that meaning [48
] and satisfaction of the need for affiliation [27
] may be relevant aspects to consider besides detachment, relaxation, autonomy, and mastery experiences. For instance, as evident in the unexpected positive link between supplemental work for other reasons and mastery experiences, working after hours, although straining, may convey a sense of meaning to the employee. Future research could follow up and further elaborate on the distinction between supplemental work for intrinsic vs. extrinsic motives, which might also integrate other intrinsically motivated forms of work in off-job time like volunteering [47
Throughout this manuscript, we have argued that unfinished tasks are associated with inner tension and rumination [2
]. Our results on the buffering role of progress imply that inner tension will drop once unfinished tasks have been finished or at least significant progress has been made during the weekend. Future research might examine the dynamics implied by our line of reasoning more rigorously using experience-sampling data, monitoring progress, tension, and rumination several times a day throughout the weekend. Discontinuous growth curve modeling [54
] techniques offer opportunities for even better accounting for the complexities and dynamics involved during the weekend.
Although our analyses do not provide strong evidence that individuals tending to resume work in off-job time differ from those who do not in terms of demographics, future research might consider individual differences. For instance, Smit [11
] found that highly involved individuals [55
] benefited most from an intervention targeted at coping with unattained goals. Further research has also considered the buffering effects of self-control [56
] for detaching from job stressors. In this sense, a worthwhile avenue for future research might integrate self-control and self-regulation perspectives with our rationale derived from control theory to gain further insights into why and when employees engage in supplemental work.
We have stressed in our study the role of the individual reasons to resume work during the weekend. However, future research might also study supplemental work behaviors during the weekend embedded in the context of organizational practices and norms to engage in supplemental work [44
]. One might also consider the role of job design (e.g., unrealistic workload) in fostering supplemental work and the factors that explain whether employees prefer supplemental work to behaviors aimed at challenging suboptimal job design [58
] in terms of proactive work behavior [59
] or job crafting [60