Get a hobby! How leisure activities can help you at work

Get a hobby! How leisure activities can help you at work

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief

You would be hard-pressed to find someone nowadays who denies the importance of work-life balance. Decades of research have shown that it is key for both work and personal outcomes, and companies are taking note, making it a common buzzword on job postings and in the workplace. But does it matter what you do with that balance and how you spend your time outside of work? Professor Karoline Strauss and her colleagues Ciara Kelly (Sheffield University Management School), John Arnold (Loughborough University) and Chris Stride (Sheffield University Management School) have shown in their recent paper that indeed it does matter: their recent research highlights the positive impact of leisure activities on psychological resources that can help at work.

Enduring career success comes down to more than the sum of the work experience, education, and technical skills listed on a resume. Your personal resources - qualities like self-efficacy - are also critical in maintaining a sustainable career. Professor Strauss and her co-authors focused on a sustainable career as it means one in which the employee is “healthy, productive, happy and employable throughout its course” [1] and that fits into, rather than takes over, an employee’s life as a whole. Anyone who has ever struggled to switch off emails after work or wrestled between staying late at the office and meeting friends for dinner can recognize how this is easier said than done. Hence the focus here on personal resources that bolster a sustainable career: namely, self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to the strength of your conviction in your abilities. In this case, the researchers looked at it specifically in how it relates to your career, so employees’ career-related self-efficacy. Why is this important to your career, you may ask? Given that the world of work is constantly in flux, having faith in your abilities is an invaluable asset when faced with changes and difficulties. It’s not just us who are saying so, either: scores of papers have pointed to self-efficacy as invaluable for a whole host of work behaviours, like career satisfaction [2] and employability [3].

So how do leisure activities fit into this picture? And just what kind of leisure are we talking about here? Leisure activities run the gamut from binge-watching Netflix to rather more involved activities like dancing and singing in a choir. To account for this and see if the type of hobby you partake in is important, the researchers classified leisure activities in two ways: according to their seriousness and according to their similarity to the employee’s work activities. The possibility of a leisure activity being ‘serious’ may seem counterintuitive, but what it means is that you consider it to be an important part of your identity, that it involves regular training, and that you intend to become good at the activity. Because skill acquisition implies mastery, it can help build self-efficacy through fostering confidence in your abilities. Since these experiences are taking place outside of work, they aren’t associated with the risk of losing your job if something goes wrong, making for an opportunity to develop personal resources in a less stressful setting. 

So far, we’ve painted a rosy picture of the benefits of serious leisure activities, but it’s important to consider the potentially deleterious impact of leisure activities on your psychological resources. Can there be a downside to being very invested in a hobby? “That depends on how similar your work and hobby are,'' says Professor Strauss.  Similarity was analyzed based on how the skillset, activities, and mental and physical demands of the hobby mapped onto those of the employee’s job. This presents a conundrum, as it may be beneficial to practice the same skills on your ‘off time’ as during your work, thereby enhancing your personal resources. On the other hand, by never really switching off from your work, you may end up more depleted and end up with detrimental consequences for your personal resources and your job. By looking at both leisure seriousness and work-leisure similarity, Professor Strauss and her colleagues were able to tease out this conundrum and figure out how you can best make your downtime work for you full time. 

Using this approach and gathering monthly data from employees over seven months, they found that there are two patterns that can help optimize how you spend your downtime. If you spend more time on a hobby that’s serious but dissimilar to your work, or not serious and similar to your work, you’ll see an enhancement in your level of self-efficacy. 

But beware of ‘too much of a good thing’: spending a lot of time on a hobby that’s both serious and similar to your work tended to leave people with lower levels of self-efficacy compared to when they spent less time on their leisure activity of choice. This might be because people found it quite taxing to be constantly depleted and not particularly effective. So a journalist who has a cooking blog on the side will actually experience decreased self-efficacy compared to an accountant with the cooking blog, or another journalist who likes to rock-climb in their spare time. This could be because engaging in different challenging activities exposes you to different experiences and builds up different resources. When you are drawing from the same resources during work and during your leisure time, you run the risk of exhausting yourself from the lack of recovery time if the activity is more challenging. Conversely, if your hobby is similar to your work but is more lowkey, it is not as taxing and doesn’t pose the same threat to recovery, instead allowing you to build up self-efficacy. 

We’ve known for a while now that it’s important to have a life outside of work and that what you do with your life outside work has implications for your job. From this study, we can also learn that hobbies aren’t just a means to kill time and have fun: they can also provide an opportunity to build up useful resources like self-efficacy that can translate to maintaining a sustainable career. It also suggests that there are important nuances to be considered in the impact of leisure activities. This is useful for the employer looking for the best performance from their employees, the employee seeking to both enjoy themselves and have a successful career, and the would-be entrepreneur looking to turn their hobby into a business. The work doesn’t stop here, however: it’s also interesting to consider the impact of hobbies on outcomes like job performance and health, and whether the effects hold true for everyone, as these particular employees were largely childfree. 

What can we do with this information? As an employee, consider how related your hobby of choice and job are, how challenging your hobby is, and how pivotal it is to your sense of self. If you find yourself answering “Very related, very challenging, and it defines who I am” : you may want to put some extra effort into how you disconnect from both to avoid depleting your levels of self-efficacy. If, however, you answer either “Well, they are similar, but my hobby is quite relaxing, and I don’t take it that seriously!” or “I put a lot of time and effort into my hobby and it’s a huge part of me, but it bears zero similarity to my job” : you’re in luck, as this has the potential to increase your self-efficacy, which can bolster your career sustainability. As an employer, consider that everybody wins if you encourage your employees to feel fulfilled and seek out hobbies outside of work, rather than wanting employees’ sole focus to be on their job. Finally, this may serve as a cautionary note to people looking to start a business based on their hobby: it might become too much of a good thing. Altogether, this highlights how important it is for researchers and employers alike to consider how life outside work influences life on the job, and how this relationship can be nuanced. And if anyone is looking for motivation to take up a new hobby, add this to the list: it can help your career! 


Check out the original article at: Kelly, C. M., Strauss, K., Arnold, J., & Stride, C. (2019). The relationship between leisure activities and psychological resources that support a sustainable career: The role of leisure seriousness and work-leisure similarity. Journal of Vocational Behavior, doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2019.103340

  1. De Hauw, S., & Greenhaus, J. H. (2015). Building a sustainable career: The role of work-home balance in career decision making. In A. De Vos, & B. Van der Heijden (Eds.). Handbook of research on sustainable careers (pp. 223–253). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

  2. Abele, A. E., & Spurk, D. (2009). The longitudinal impact of self-efficacy and career goals on objective and subjective career success. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74(1), 53-62.Berntson, E., Näswall, K., & Sverke, M. (2008). Investigating the relationship between employability and self-efficacy: A cross-lagged analysis. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 17(4), 413-425.

  3. Berntson, E., Näswall, K., & Sverke, M. (2008). Investigating the relationship between employability and self-efficacy: A cross-lagged analysis. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 17(4), 413-425.

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