How To Help A Friend Address Their Burnout In A Supportive Way

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When I decided to leave a job after extreme burnout, I became a go-to for friends and colleagues seeking to do the same. And one thing I learned is that while burnout can be an isolating experience, chances are someone close to you is experiencing the same thing and needs a friend to lend an ear. When deciding how to help a friend address their burnout, it's important to listen without judgement, acknowledge their feelings, and offer support. In some cases, your friend might not even be able to identify they are experiencing burnout as many people think burnout is something reserved for first responders. However, it can happen to anyone.

"[People] may not realize that they are dealing with burnout and may instead believe that they are just struggling to keep up during stressful times. Stress, however, is usually experienced as feeling anxious and having a sense of urgency while burnout is more commonly experienced as helplessness, hopelessness, or apathy," Workplace Strategies for Mental Health explained on its website. "Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness in the workplace, and by chronic negative responses to stressful workplace conditions."

Between stress about debt it feels like you'll never pay off, round-the-clock work schedules, and the pressure to perform on social media, burnout is becoming more common among millennials. In fact, BuzzFeed News reporter Anne Helen Petersen refers to it as "the millennial condition." If a friend is coming to you with complaints about being overwhelmed and psychologically exhausted at work, or by another situation in their life, there's a good chance they're experiencing burnout. Here are nine ways you can help.

1. Let Them Know You're There For Them

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If you notice that a friend is headed for burnout, reach out and ask them if they need help. "When I do a presentation on burnout, I show a slide of an ostrich with its head in the sand, and the caption, ‘Don’t be this way when you see a colleague struggling,'" Dr. Clifton Knight, senior vice president for education at the American Academy of Family Physicians, told Avery Hurt for Modern Medicine Network. "Medical culture says, ‘Do not butt in' but we need to realize that we aren’t doing them a favor by ignoring the problem."

It's important to note than your friend might not be ready to admit they're burned out, and they might not respond well to your asking them if they need help. Don't take it personally if your friend gets defensive. Simply by offering support, your friend knows they can come to you when they are ready to talk.

2. Listen Without Judgement

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When a friend does open up to you, listen to understand. When friends first contacted me to talk about their burnout, they initially apologized. People thought that because I had recovered from burnout, I wouldn't want to revisit the topic. That couldn't be further from the truth. I know firsthand how hard it can be, and I am always happy to help a friend. Once it was clear I was willing to listen without judgement, my friends knew they could share their frustrations with me. The simple act of listening to someone else and making them feel heard can be incredibly helpful. If nothing else, it lets your friend know they aren't alone.

3. Validate Your Friend's Feelings

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One of the worst things about burnout, especially at work, is feeling like it's all in your head or you're the only one feeling depleted. When I was descending into burnout, I went to my managers multiple times to ask for help, but each time I was dismissed. Not being heard feels awful, and it can make you feel like you're failing. Validating your friend's feelings is one of the most important things you can do.

4. Exercise Patience

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When you're experiencing burnout, your mind can feel like a snow globe that never settles down. This can be frustrating for others. "When people are exhausted from burnout they can have difficulties with their cognitive abilities. You may find that your friend is having trouble with paying attention or remembering simple things. Have patience during this time, as your friend could, quite literally, be coping with reduced brain function," Health Coach Jessica Cohen explained on her website Eat Sleep Be.

5. Ask How You Can Help

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A lot of people, myself included, are reluctant to ask for help. If your friend is suffering from burnout, offer to help before they have to ask. More specifically, ask how you can help. Perhaps your friend needs help running errands, a meal prepared, or someone to walk their dog. Offering to take a bit of the burden off of their shoulders can make a big difference.

6. Practice Acts of Kindness

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When someone is struggling, small acts of kindness can make a big difference. Whether it's sending flowers or picking up the tab for dinner, it's easy to show you care. "Sending flowers, a thoughtful text message, or a written card can remind friends and family members that they’re not alone," Healthline advised. "Because they’re often working long hours, people with burnout can feel lonely and under appreciated. But small gestures of kindness can be nurturing."

I had a colleague who would send me Stevie Nicks YouTube videos whenever I was having a bad day. While it was a small gesture, it always made me feel a little better to know that someone not only had my back, but also wanted to make me smile.

7. Don't Give Advice Unless You're Asked For It

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When you see a friend in pain, it's normal to want to fix it. Trust me, I get it. I am a fixer by nature, but I have learned that not everyone wants advice. Sometimes people just want to be heard. "Before jumping into 'fixing' mode, offer to listen to your friend or family member’s difficulties," Heathline noted. "Having someone to talk to can make a world of difference. Often people need someone to witness their stress and suffering, and listening can go a long way."

That being said, if your friend does ask you for advice, and you have personal experience with burnout, it's totally OK to tell them what worked for you. It's also important to note that not everyone who is burned out able to realistically leave their job, so don't advise that. For those who need to stay in the situation that is causing them strife, learning coping strategies can help relieve some of the pressure. If you have go-to strategies that work for you, and your friend asks for advice, feel free to share them.

8. Guide Them Toward Professional Resources

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Debilitating stress is a viable reason for paid medical leave, and taking advantage of that could give your friend time to re-evaluate their present circumstances and consider making changes. What's more, many companies also have confidential employee assistance programs (EAP). If your friend's company has one, encourage them to use it. EAPs can connect people with free therapists who can help create a plan of action or refer them to outside resources. I have used the EAP at a previous job, and it was beyond helpful.

In many states, you can get unemployment if you can prove you resigned from a job that anyone else would have resigned from in the same situation. This generally involves a phone call with someone from your state's unemployment insurance bureau. You might also need to provide witnesses to back up your claims. I went through this process, and it gave me the cushion I needed to leave my toxic job and look for a new one.

9. Encourage Your Friend To Put Themself First

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One of the reasons burnout can negatively affect physical and mental health is because people who are burned out often neglect to take care of themselves. Sometimes when people are overwhelmed, they can forgo proper nutrition, sleep, exercise and instead over indulge in things like alcohol and junk food. While these things will make you feel better in the short-term, they're going to make you feel worse in the long run.

Encourage your friend to put themself first by making their physical and mental health a priority. In addition, if your friend does leave their job and feels guilty because they're taking the time to care for themself, let them know that they are 100% entitled to do that.

I have worked steadily since I was 13 with no more than a few weeks off between jobs. After leaving my burnout job, I took six months off of work, and I needed every second of that time to re-evaluate my career path and take steps to restore my health. There's no shame in taking care of you. In fact, let your friend know that it's the most important thing.