Do you need a rest? 3 myth-busting points to consider as you switch off from work


You know that if you don’t get a good night’s sleep, your work suffers the next day – the benefits of those eight hours of slumber are well documented. But what about rest – that subjective activity that few feel they get enough of? What role does that play in your productivity, your brainpower, and your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing? The answers aren’t as straightforward as you might think.

Researchers from Durham University have spent a year researching rest, its meaning, functions and results. They surveyed 18,000 individuals from 134 countries, and found that nearly 70% of people want more rest. And the nuances behind this figure might just make you think differently about how you factor downtime into your working day.



Feeling guilty

“Busy.” It’s a word you probably find yourself reaching for every time you’re asked that can-of-worms opener, “How are you?” And what’s notable from the new research is that for many, “busyness” has become a way of being that determines worth. As a result, nearly 10% of people associate rest with words like “guilt” and “stress-inducing”. Taking a break is seen as something that can have ramifications for your reputation, your career and even your health – indeed, many people admit that they spent “rest time” worrying about all the things they aren’t doing.

“We really need to challenge the assumption that if you take more rest, you are more lazy. The fact that people who are more rested seem to have better well-being is an endorsement for the need for the rest,” says the project’s Leader, Professor Felicity Callard. She was referencing the study’s key finding – that those who are committed to frequent and lengthy periods of rest (somewhere between five and six hours a day seems to be the sweet spot), scored substantially higher on the wellbeing scale than those who self-assessed their rest time as too little.

“Busyness has become a badge of honour in today’s society,” says British author and study collaborator Claudia Hammond. “To be busy is to be wanted and valued. When someone asks us how we are and we answer, ‘Busy, so busy,’ how much is our answer to do with status? Are people with high incomes more likely to want to claim to be busy? Or is it that they have jobs where new technology means that the boundaries between work and rest become ever more blurred, leaving them with the feeling that they can’t fully switch off?”



Reading, taking a bath, listening to music, day dreaming and jogging – notice anything about this list of respondents’ favourite ways to rest? They’re all things you, generally speaking, do alone. “Interestingly, this applies both in the case of extroverts – sometimes defined as people who gain energy from being around others – and introverts, who find other people draining. Extroverts do place chatting and socialising a little higher up the chart, but still they are beaten by solitary activities,” reveals Claudia Hammond.

So why might time alone play such a vital part in feeling rested? “Could it be that what we really want, in order to rest, is respite from other people?” asks Hammond. Well yes, is the answer – and the reasons are many and complex.

First off, alone time provides a chance to re-connect with the self. “People said that when they were on their own mostly they were focused on how they were feeling, so on their body or their emotions,” says report co-author Ben Alderson-Day, a psychologist from the University of Durham.

Secondly, the ‘first sign of madness’ demonstrated by self-talkers who’ve spent too long alone turns out to be a myth. Self-appointed alone time (as opposed to unwelcome loneliness) gives you a chance to switch off – not just from others, but from yourself too. “People said they were only talking to themselves in their head 30% of the time,” says Alderson-Day. “There is a hint that when you’re on your own, as well as switching off from other people, you get the chance to switch off from your own inner monologue as well.”

Thirdly, there is a perception, garnered via the survey, that “rest” is “the opposite of work”. Consider that the modern workplace, with all its open plan layouts, emphasis on group work and information sharing, and hyper, technology-enabled connectivity, is built and thrives on coming together. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that in order to feel truly rested, you might create some temporary walls between you and your colleagues.



All rest is not created equal

One of the more surprising elements of the survey is the wide variation in what individuals consider a restful activity. Sitting down with a cup of tea and doing nothing might be the more obvious way to kickback for many, but for others, listening to loud music while sprinting around the park invites a greater feeling of restfulness. There are also differences in how men, women, and different age groups prefer to rest.

Reading scores highest all round. When it came to “being in a natural environment”, women are more likely than men to enjoy the peace of a beautiful setting. Younger women (under 30) are also more likely to enjoy being on their own as a restful activity – far ahead of socialising with friends or family. Younger men are more likely than others to feel rested after listening to music, while more 18-30-year-olds than other age groups find bathing a prime example of rest time well spent. Daydreaming, walking, practicing mindfulness and “doing nothing in particular” also feature prominently on the rest charts, favoured by all age groups and both genders.

Quantity is just as important as quality. Those who experience less rest than most the previous day, or who believe they need more rest than the average individual, score lower on a wellbeing scale. In a marked difference, people who feel sufficiently rested, score twice as high on wellbeing scales as those who feel themselves in need of more rest.

“This result is of particular interest as it supports the idea that an individual’s subjective perception of rest experienced (whether they feel rested enough) is as important as obtaining a specific amount of rest,” explains Claudia Hammond.


All three episodes of the BBC Radio 4 documentary The Anatomy Of Rest are available to listen on demand. If you want to dig deeper into this topic, a free e-book is available to download, The Restless Compendium.


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