Career Advice

How To Combat the Guilt of Taking Breaks or ‘Doing Nothing’ When Recovering From Burnout

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When you’re stuck in a tough spot at work—you’re *this close* to burnout, you’re wondering whether your job is the right fit, your office culture could use a serious upgrade—who do you turn to? Your mentor, who has years of experience you can rely on? Your mom, who always keeps your best interests in mind? Or your BFF, who is dependable for a killer pep talk? Put all three perspectives in a blender, and you’ve got Good@Work, Well+Good’s career advice column. See All

Question:

I understand the importance of taking breaks and creating boundaries at work and home, but I still feel guilty. Do you have any recommendations on how I can think differently?

Answer:

Guilt is a common emotion for my burnout relief clients. Hustle culture rewards productivity, while resting and boundaries have been mislabeled as laziness and selfish behavior—making people feel bad when they try to take reasonable measures to protect their mental health, like not answering emails after hours or taking mental health days.

Thankfully, a collective effort has begun between workplaces and employees to untangle this unhealthy belief system. The Future Workplace 2021 HR Sentiment survey found that 68 percent of senior HR leaders rated employee well-being and mental health as top priorities, and companies like LinkedIn and Bumble have dedicated full weeks to the well-being of their employees. On the flip site, employees are now evaluating employers on the breadth of their benefits packages, with one survey finding that 62 percent of employees cite employee well-being as a key deciding factor when applying for a new job. The Great Resignation and “quiet quitting” (aka setting boundaries with work) are daily illustrations of a change in behavior and a shifting power balance between employer and employee. These are exciting improvements, but we still have a long way to go to change our work culture for the better.

Rest and boundaries are not earned by your production, but are tools to help you thrive.

Disengaging from work—especially taking days off of work—can help with burnout. Studies have shown how time off can reduce stress and potentially improve heart health, and can even increase the likelihood of a raise or bonus. However, a recent survey by Glassdoor highlighted that over 50 percent of professionals are unable to unplug during their time off, limiting the positive impact of that PTO.

Let’s be real: Guilt over resting and setting boundaries won’t magically disappear. You can’t wish it away, and it still may come around even if you know it's illogical. (I’ve studied burnout for over five years and my therapist still had to put me on timeout.) But just because you feel guilt doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Here are a few self-reflection questions for the next time guilt comes your way, to ensure that you’re still doing what’s right for your needs, not those of hustle culture.

4 questions to help you stop work-related guilt in its tracks

1. Is the guilt real or perceived?

Step one is recognizing where the guilt stems from. If you’ve followed through on your responsibilities before leaving for vacation, for example, then it may be self-imposed. Rest and boundaries are not earned by your production, but are tools to help you thrive. The mind is a powerful tool that can create stories and make it easy to overlook falsehoods we tell ourselves. A therapist is a great partner to help you identify and work through past experiences that may be creating this guilt.

2. Are you doing “nothing” or are you doing exactly what you need to do?

Resting is often perceived as “doing nothing,” but it requires a deep level of intentionality. As in, it's an intentional way to reset, protect your health, and keep you great at doing your job and other things you love. Long-term, it’s important to deepen your relationship with rest. In the meantime, adding breaks to your to-do list can help you ease into this new behavior and give you a familiar sense of accomplishment when you check it off the list.

3. If not now, when?

Between project deadlines and personal responsibilities, there will be times that you cannot step away. But waiting until “everything is done” to give yourself a break is not realistic nor healthy. Review your calendar for the next three months to find the times when your load is lighter. Those downtimes are the perfect points to pre-plan your breaks. Block the time on your calendar and figure out what to do with your day later.

4. What would you say to your BFF?

It’s often easier to offer advice than to take your own. If you’re still hesitating, try viewing things from another perspective. What would you say if your best friend was in your situation? Would you tell them to keep doing what they are doing, or would you want them to recognize that they deserve to prioritize their well-being?

If taking breaks, creating boundaries, or prioritizing your well-being is new behavior for you, keep going despite the guilt. Change takes time. And time can make way for change.

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