It goes without saying that employees’ off-hours activities can affect their on-the-job performance. This dynamic is usually framed in negative terms: Workers who, say, spend every evening club hopping aren’t particularly productive most mornings.
Well, new research finds there is one category of leisure-time activity that actually makes people better employees. If you’re looking for workers who are unusually innovative and/or team players who enjoy helping their colleagues, check out those who spend their free time painting, playing music, or engaging in some other form of creativity.
“Creative activities are likely to provide valuable experiences of mastery and control,” writes a research team led by San Francisco State University psychologist Kevin Eschleman, “but may also provide employees experiences of discovery that uniquely influence performance-related outcomes.”
"Employees who reported greater levels of creative activity were also rated (by themselves and others) as higher in job creativity."
In short, the researchers write in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, creative activity seems to help workers recover faster from work-related stress and depletion, even as it fosters skills and attitudes coveted by employers.
Eschleman and his colleagues conducted two related studies that found a link between leisure-time creativity and job performance. One featured 341 Americans (average age 37) who participated as part of the StudyResponse Project. The second featured 92 active-duty captains in the U.S. Air Force who participated in a six-week leadership development program.
On a scale of one to five (“rarely” to “very often”), all participants were asked how often they “took part in creative tasks” or “used (my free) time to explore my creative side” over the past 30 days.
Those in the first study then rated their own work performances using several measures. Using that same five-point scale, they reported how often they “come up with creative solutions to job problems,” “go out of the way to make others at work feel welcome,” and “defend the organization when others criticize it.”
For the Air Force officers, that same evaluation form was filled out by “randomly selected subordinates and co-workers.”
Researchers found a similar pattern of results for both studies.
“Employees who reported greater levels of creative activity were also rated (by themselves and others) as higher in job creativity,” they write. They also performed above average on two measures of “organizational citizenship behaviors”—willingness to assist their colleagues, and loyalty to the organization.
Eschleman and his colleagues list a variety of possible reasons behind this association. They noted that mastering an art form can build transferable skills, build self-esteem, and allow for “a cathartic release of intense negative emotions,” which otherwise might build up and impact one’s job performance.
So employers should encourage this sort of off-hours activity, right? Sure, the researchers write—so long as they aren’t too heavy-handed about it. “Intrinsic motivation is part of that unique experience that comes with creative activity,” Eschleman notes in a statement accompanying the paper.
But without a hint of coercion, firms can offer discounted memberships to art studios, drama clubs, or writing workshops. They could even give their employees freedom to decorate their offices however they desire. It works for Zappos.