Who among us isn't guilty of leaving work on Friday without finishing every last task? Once the clock strikes 5 p.m., no one wants to hang out at their desk, laboring over final touches. It's hard to think of a good reason to delay the onset of the freakin' weekend. Even the office martyr is like "F that biz dev report. If you need me, I'll be getting after it and ignoring Slack notifications, fools." But, according to a new study published this month in The Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, if you cut out before wrapping everything up, then you may waste precious free time ruminating over those loose ends and, ultimately, suffer weekend sleep loss.
A fair amount of research concerns work stress and sleep issues. The relationship appears to go both ways: Bad sleepers make stressed-out workers and vice versa. For example, one recent study found that work stressors including quantitative job demands (i.e., time pressure and workload) predict sleep problems two years later. The connection between unfinished work and poor sleep, however, has received relatively little attention, according to German psychologists who authored the current study.
We do know, however, that unfinished work sticks on the mind. People are far more likely to recollect mental tasks (e.g., puzzles or "constructing cardboard boxes") that they haven't finished, compared to those they have. The tendency to keep half-done tasks top of mind is called the "Zeigarnik effect." In this case, "unfinished" means tasks that employees intend to finish (or make a decent dent in) but leave incomplete or in an "unsatisfactory state." And, other research suggests that incomplete work haunts employees through rumination, "which serves the function of keeping unresolved work issues cognitively present until the work-related problem is resolved." If we spend weekends ruminating, researchers reasoned, "one could argue that work-related stress keeps employees from unwinding in their leisure time." The ultimate, most biologically vital form of "unwinding," of course, is sleep.
So, study authors hypothesized that unfinished tasks can affect sleep by leaving people to stew in their own discomfort when they should be hanging out or dozing. To test their hunch, they recruited employed German adults to keep diaries for 12 weeks. Fifty-nine participants completed two entries each week. On Friday afternoon, they filled out questionnaires about the completeness of their week's work. On Monday morning, they reported on their weekend sleep habits and rumination tendencies. For instance, they rated their agreement with statements such as "this weekend I became tense when I thought about work-related issues."
Researchers analyzed participants' Friday and Monday reports and found that Friday slackers spent more time fretting and less time sleeping over the weekend than their responsible counterparts did. In investigating rumination, researchers distinguished between two types. The first refers to the nagging, negative thoughts described above. Then there's "problem-solving pondering," which is exactly what it sounds like. People ruminate productively, using mental energy to figure out whatever tripped them up during the week. Constructive, problem-solving ruminators enjoyed better sleep.
But, the study didn't take into account how participants spent their weekends — when they weren't ruminating and sleeping (or trying to). "Rumination might thus be higher for employees whose weekend activities do not require much attention and active involvement," wrote study authors in their paper.
Regardless, if you find yourself dissolving into a heap of blahs and sads and sleepless whyyyys on Sunday night, then you might want to revisit your Friday work habits.