How sports, mentoring and career breaks save you from burnout: a frank talk with Kateryna Serhiienko

More than 36% of human resources specialists experience constant stress at work. This is evidenced by the data of the survey “Mental Health of the Ukrainian Recruiter 2023” recently conducted by CleverStaff. Constant stress is a step towards a certain stage of burnout, which entails not only a deterioration in the psychological state, but also problems with physical health and well-being in general.

How to stop at the right time, recognize this condition, and what to do to reclaim yourself – this is being discussed with Kateryna Serhiienko, Head of Recruitment, mentor and speaker.

  • Kateryna, please tell us when and how you faced the problem of burnout?

To convey the specifics of my experience, I will add a little context. So, for the past three years, I have been the Head of Recruitment of a large team of recruiters in a powerful IT company. I built my team and processes from scratch. Initially, it was 4 recruiters, at the peak – 25. It was my brainchild, an interesting and at the same time very active period, which I lived week after week at a super-high pace.

When the 3rd year passed, I began to feel signs of emotional burnout. But I did not know then that this was it. This condition is very insidious and often disguised as banal fatigue. We think we are just tired of work, of people, of the environment. I also thought that I was exhausted because of the high workload and the responsibility for a large team and business performance. It seemed that if I took an extra weekend off, everything would fall into place. But… the weekend passes, and you do not feel the desired relief, you work hard again… And everything goes in a circle. In fact, this path can take from 3 months to 1.5 years. But these are the first bright signals.

  • How did you identify your stage?

There are different stages/classifications of emotional burnout. But I am close to the theory of German psychologist Mathias Burisch about 6 stages,

  • the first one is when you just plunge into work processes and ignore all non-work-related needs,
  • the second stage is when general empathy decreases and the former desire to work gradually disappears, categorical attitude is added and it seems that everyone around you is working too little,
  • the third one – there is an acute experience of all emotions, fatigue leads to mistakes in work, guilt, apathy, and possibly even depression,
  • the fourth one – destructive behavior is added to the emotions,
  • the fifth one is psychosomatic reactions of the body,
  • the sixth one is the loss of senses.

So, I found myself at a fairly late fifth stage, when my body “spoke” to me: I felt constant physical discomfort, back and sleep problems, and developed different taste habits. For example, I wanted more sweets, even though I do not really like sweets, but my body needed it to get some emotions. And I already understood what was happening, but it is not enough to realize that you are burned out, you also need to have the strength and wisdom to accept this state.

In my 9 years in IT, I have not encountered this, but I have heard many stories from candidates that happened “somewhere and to someone”, but not to me. And this time it was the other way around. And it was quite sad and difficult to realize.

  • What happened next?

By that time, my state of mind had already become deeply entrenched, and I could not change anything fundamentally and immediately, such as my schedule. I had to meet targets, goals, make sure the team was motivated, keep in touch with hiring managers and the CEO (which is 50+ people!), etc.

I have always loved what I do, but like any work with people, it is very energy-consuming. The maximum I allowed myself to do was to close my calendar from meetings one day a week, because I had 5-9 meetings every day on a regular basis, plus a lot of operational activities and tasks that arise in the moment and need to be closed from day to day. The more you work in this mode, the more your resources are “washed out”. After all, even on vacation, you, as a manager, still monitor the work of your department, read chats, and respond to important messages.

But, of course, the team gives you a lot of positive emotions and drives you to do more and better. It is really cool to see how you influence the juniors who have just started their first job, how they grow, and to rejoice in their successes, to watch a middle recruiter become a TimLead thanks to your hard work and constant feedback.

  • Have your colleagues and loved ones noticed your condition?

My boss sincerely helped me with advice, suggested taking more care of myself – taking a day off, going to sports, having a massage, going to the forest. Within my team, I could not allow myself to show emotions – after all, I am the head of the department, people are guided by me, there is a certain business ethic. As for my family, they know that I am a “workaholic” and an “achiever” ☺, so they understand me. But once my mother asked me if everything was okay now, because I was too absorbed in my work and did not talk about anything else. Six months later, I remembered her question and found the answer. I had to leave the company in order to radically change the situation.

  • When did you start working on your recovery?

In my last days at work, I realized that my recovery story would take at least six months, maybe more. I desperately needed a long-term vacation, a so-called career break. After all, for more than 3 years of working at a high pace, I have accumulated a lot of my “administrative debts”. In the first week, I started writing “recovery” plans, where the main task is to take care of myself and my health as much as possible.

  • What did you focus on first?

Given that I was at the 5th stage of burnout and already had some health problems, I saw myself working on myself in three areas at once – mental, physical and medical. I did a complete check-up of my body, had massages, and went in for sports. If I had returned it earlier, it would have helped me cope with my condition faster. After all, our mental and physical health are closely linked. And when something “falls apart” on one side, the other can protect and compensate. Sport is a must-have and a great lesson for life, and it does not matter if it is yoga or strength exercises, stretching or running, dancing, swimming – whatever you like.

But for sure, sport has improved my physical condition and had a very positive impact on my mental state.

  • What else has been added to the recovery plan?

A quality reboot requires new emotions. So I decided to try something I had not done before. But where can you get new, vivid emotions in a country where there is a war going on and it is very difficult morally, constant shelling, lack of sleep, cortisol spikes…

That is right, we do what we can, and in my case, I decided that it was the gym. That is why… cycling appeared in my life! Although I do not like cycling at all. But I am inspired by these group strength and endurance classes, where everyone goes somewhere very active once a week ☺. I also work out with a trainer individually 2-3 times a week, I like stretching, barre, and I signed up for individual lessons with a choreographer.

I have been riding horses for several years now, but due to lack of time it was sporadic, and now I want to do it on a regular basis because horses are my love.

I also have the time and desire to help, so my family and I go to a shelter for rescued animals (where there are 18 horses, a stork, cats, dogs, a large raven, and a pony), buy food, vegetables and fruits, their favorite treats, and spend time together, and it is extremely beneficial and a great pleasure.

  • As for the medical topic, where did you start?

I did a full check-up of my body to understand what and where I needed to improve. I started working with a nutritionist to close the deficiencies. Unfortunately, not everyone is fully aware of the impact that nutrition has on our well-being. A nutritionist is also an interesting experience that I have not had before. I strive to make my diet more conscious and of higher quality. In addition, I am studying positive psychology, doing various psychological practices and studying myself.

  • Have you really put your professional life on hold?

No, I have not dropped out of the profession ☺. I have registered on the mentoring platform from PROJECTOR Institute.

I conduct personal mentoring sessions on recruiting, management, career building, etc. This is a charitable initiative, I do not receive financial reward, but I gain something much more valuable – interesting acquaintances and new emotions. I started meeting people whom I would hardly have met in my normal life, working in a 24×7 office. Yes, while working in the company, I held internal conferences, hackathons, launched internships, and was a lecturer at schools. But to go beyond the company, I simply did not have the resources for this, nor did I have the strength and desire to build a personal brand. But now people come to me with specific requests: advise on training, tell me how to hire a CEO, how to build a recruiting department, how to become a better lead, what metrics to implement. These are the topics and many others in which I have experience, and I am happy to share it.

I conduct up to five such sessions a week, it is comfortable, inspiring, and allows me to be in the profession, but from a consulting perspective. Separately, I lead 3 mentees on a regular basis according to our development plan for three to six months and have consulting projects for product companies.

I like teaching and being useful, helping businesses. I also periodically participate in conferences and various professional events, including international ones, as a speaker, where I share my knowledge and experience. And to be honest, I am very comfortable in this mode. After all, I control my workload myself, and it is important to me that it is not full during recovery.

  • Can charity be considered as a separate “medicine” for burnout?

Of course! I especially like it when charity returns after a while. When a person, with your help and mentoring, has worked on a topic, has a result, and writes to you to tell you about their achievements, it motivates me greatly. And this is my result as well. After all, you do not have to be inside the company to help solve certain issues successfully. An external expert can give a lot of valuable advice. This is an insight that I have gained from trying to be an independent consultant.

  • Has burnout changed your attitude to the profession?

I love my profession very much. But I did change my attitude to work. I used to think that work was me, and my whole life was work! I always chose work over something else – sports, new acquaintances, mentoring, building a personal brand. But burnout prompted me to look for and find new meanings and senses. I came to the conclusion that work is just a part of my life, no matter how much you love it. You are a friend, wife, daughter, mentor, speaker. You are a personal brand for someone. And all this should also have a time and place in life. Jobs change, people change, and you are the only one who is left alone. And if you do not take care of all your other roles, it will be very painful later.

  • And what everyday things have you looked at from a different angle?

I did not realize before what it meant to do “whatever you want”. When you live by the calendar, you cannot always prioritize your personal life. For me, now it is a thrill even to go out in the middle of the day to do something. Going to the gym when it is almost free. Having breakfast with friends at 12:00 and working together in any co-working space in Kyiv. Incredibly simple things, but so cool!

  • Your top 3 tips for those who already feel “kind of tired”.

Health and well-being are exceptionally your responsibility. Therefore, if you already have some premonitions (because when you do not want to go to work on Monday, it is a bright red marker) and burnout is close, I advise the following:

  1. Understand and accept the fact that you may burn out. And this is normal!
  2. Seek professional help. Depending on the stage, it can be a coach, mentor or psychotherapist, who will help you recognize the true condition.
  3. Record what you need to improve the situation. At least a minimal but specific action plan.

Maybe someone should quit right away, someone should move to a new role because they are no longer interested in what they are doing and should talk frankly about it with their manager. For some people, active sports, dancing, psychological practices, and not opening their laptops after 7 p.m. will work. Others need to go on a retreat to the mountains for 2 weeks and walk in the meadows. There is no universal recipe, because everyone needs something different.

And let a psychologist into your life. In the 21st century, this is the norm! We regularly clean our apartment, order cleaning – so why not do it in your head? It is not necessary for everyone to be in therapy for years, you can contact on request, or when you feel the need to support or analyze a situation, trauma, or just “preventively” – it is 100% that you will gain benefit.

  • What advice would you give to managers?

Managers should notice and react. You should talk less and ask more questions – so that the person is looking for answers, and you guide them, extend your hand to meet them and hold their shoulders and be there for them. If an employee is in the 2nd or 3rd stage of burnout, the manager can already see it. After all, the tone of voice, team behavior, and reaction to everyday things change. You should first talk, understand what it is about, maybe it is personal things or work, then give a vacation or a “long weekend”. It is necessary to overload the brain and pick up new things, so as not to bring it to a loss of meaning. It will be more profitable for the manager to let the specialist go for a while than to look for a new one later. Nowadays, it is expensive, time-consuming and not cool. Take care not only of yourself, but also of those around you ☺

CleverStaff would like to thank Kateryna Serhiienko for the talk and pieces of advice!