How to Return to Work After Burnout Without Burning Out Again
Acknowledging responsibility for your burnout, letting go of perfectionism, ceasing to compare yourself to others, and addressing hyper-responsibility — what else do you need to do (and not do) to work effectively and with pleasure? Katerina Rudko, the administrative director of Company Belka Games, a candidate of legal sciences, a mentor for women in IT, a speaker, and the organizer of a book club in Vilnius, shares her advice.
I lead the administrative team at Belka Games, and for the past three years, we haven't had a dull moment. We've opened seven new offices in different countries and had two large-scale relocations (in 2020 and 2022). In total, we assisted over 330 employees of our company in moving.
During that time, many of my tasks were new to me, and I wanted to excel at them. I set a very high bar for myself, shifted my life priorities significantly towards work, and started working tirelessly. After the summer 2020, my workday could last for more than 12 hours. My October 2020 calendar had 35 meetings a week. Until mid-2021, I practiced "working in two shifts." After the standard workday, around 7:00 PM, I had dinner, followed by a two-hour nap, and then worked again until 2-3 AM. I often worked on weekends and took a vacation for only two weeks in total during those two years. Then came 2022. The number of my urgent and important tasks sharply increased, and my stress level was off the charts. That's when I realized I had completely run out of resources, and there was nowhere else for me to draw strength. I urgently needed to change something.
In January 2023, I went on a two-month sabbatical. No work emails, no messaging apps, no calls, and no tight schedules. I needed to disconnect from work to be alone with myself and find a balance in life. And that's exactly what happened.
It's been over six months since I returned to work, and I still adhere to the principles I developed during my sabbatical. They help me work no more than 42 hours a week without compromising quality or decreasing the number of issues I can handle.
Now, I have a well-maintained work-life balance. So, what has changed? I started following the four rules discussed below.
1. Accept that burnout is within our zone of responsibility
Often, burnout is blamed on the employer, leading to job changes. The same patterns, however, repeat in the new company. The reason is that you are the one overloading, taking on responsibility, and asking for additional work. When dealing with burnout, it's essential to address the deep personal reasons that led to it.
Yes, it can be uncomfortable to realize this because it's easier to blame someone else. But a benefit of this insight is the realization that if something is within your control, then you can be the one to make changes and improvements. You don't need to wait for someone else to rescue you. Relief is in your hands!
2. Let go of perfectionism
Perfectionism drives you to madness, making you review the same document for the fifteenth time, rearranging words or obsessively adjusting the font size by one point to make everything "perfect." This pursuit of perfection often comes at a high cost in terms of time, money, energy, and nerves. It's perfectly adequate to do a job well without expending your last mental and physical resources. The concept of "good enough" should replace the approach of "either perfect or nothing."
3. Stop comparing yourself to others
People try to portray the best version of themselves to the world. I learned this in my early childhood when I saw my grandmother place the most beautiful tomatoes at the top of her summer cottage basket, so that her fellow train passengers would think that her whole harvest looked that good.
When viewers see these perfect images, they often feel like they fall short because there are many more efficient and successful individuals around. Constant comparison can lead to one of two outcomes:
You start working to exhaustion to achieve similar victories, which leads to burnout.
You fall into a pit of self-blame and feel like a complete failure, which also leads to burnout and even depression.
If you tend to compare, it's better to refrain from actively using social media, where everyone showcases perfect snapshots of their lives. A healthier comparison is comparing your current self to yourself "1-2-3 years ago." This shows the progress you (not someone else) made.
4. Work on hyper-responsibility
Hyper-responsible individuals are willing to take on not just their own tasks but others' tasks as well because no one else can handle them. A hyper-responsible person doesn't know how to say "no." They add things to their scope of responsibility that "no one else can do better anyway."
As a result, hyper-responsible individuals carry an unbearable burden. They are torn between a million tasks that they can't delegate to anyone else, and they stress out because, of course, something from that million isn't going well or as planned. The inevitable result is burnout. Sometimes, the best thing to do is take a deep breath and say, "This is not my concern; I won't get involved," directing your time and energy toward your own tasks.
The issues identified above are quite fundamental. It's worth considering them independently, working with a specialist, or discussing them in a group.
Additionally, there are practical lifehacks that can help maintain a balance between your work and personal life. They can prevent you from getting immersed in work matters during a cruise or a school concert for your child. I'll share my own.
My day is fully scheduled in my calendar from the moment I wake up. It includes hourly planning for my workday as well as all activities before and after work. Why?
Many experts emphasize that our brains are always in a state of "What should I do next?" If you haven't preplanned the answer to this question, your brain will take the shortest route, either doing what it's accustomed to (opening the laptop) or seeking quick pleasures (watching shows, social media).
The absence of planned activities before or after work can be a slippery slope leading you to think, "Well, I don't have much to do, I'll just check my email really quick." And poof! It's 2 AM, and you're still at your laptop.
That's why a scheduled evening massage or a run serve as a kind of boundary to prevent an uncontrolled flow of work activity. It's a reminder that the workday is over, and it's time to focus on yourself and your personal affairs.
Phone applications are designed with an understanding of how our brains and psyches work, often targeting our curiosity. For example, a red circle indicating an unread message on the screen can be too tempting, and suddenly, we've opened one message and dived into work discussions for an hour right in the middle of our aunt's birthday party.
So, I removed icons for work-related apps from the quick access screen on my phone (meaning I have to manually search for them), reducing the temptation. Also, from 7:00 PM to 10:00 AM, I turn off notifications for all messaging apps, corporate chats, and email. If something truly urgent happens, someone will call me. Everything else can wait until the next workday.
Working from the office
During my sabbatical, I moved to another country and started going to the office. After prolonged lockdowns, this felt like something new, something I’d almost forgotten.
I intentionally don't carry my laptop with me; it stays only in the office. This helps me mentally separate work, which is associated with being in the office, from my personal life, which starts when I descend the steps from the business center where I work.
I walk home, which takes about 15 minutes, allowing me to mentally transition, think through any remaining work issues, and leave them behind when I get home. My husband meets me at the same time near the office every evening, providing a good incentive to finish the workday on time.
Looking back, I realize that I used to work a lot and effectively, but not efficiently. I thought that the more work hours I put in each week, the more I could accomplish, and I could skimp on leisure. However, this approach only works in the short term. If it becomes a behavioral pattern, burnout inevitably sets in one way or another. Now, I understand that resting, enjoying leisure activities, pursuing hobbies, and engaging in sports are not only essential for me but also for my work. After all, the more energized a person is, the higher their life satisfaction and dedication at work. That's when your work becomes more effective, and you accomplish more.