Supporting a colleague/ friend through a Burnout

It’s becoming increasingly more common that I hear about colleagues or friends being off work due to a burnout /physical exhaustion as a result of their work. It can feel helpless as a colleague to know what is the best way to approach this situation and what to say/not say moving forward. I wanted to put together some notes that might help you if you find yourself in this situation.

Understand what a Burnout is

Burnout is being in a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. You are unable to keep up with the constant demands that are placed on you as having a burnout reduces your productivity/effectivity.

The negative aspects of having a Burnout spill into every aspect of your life, but this is not a condition that appears immediately. It occurs over time and the signs subtly appear until you cannot recognise yourself or get yourself out of the situation.

If you’re looking from the outside, it can appear that your colleague is slacking/super stressed / working extremely long hours. The signs of a burnout can be different for everyone so what may appear normal for one, can be extraordinary for another.

Look at what you’re able to do

You cannot help your colleague if they’re not willing to help themselves or see that there is an issue, so you can support them in understanding what their issue is but not try to force them to seek help. If you have a sympathic line manager or HR support, you could raise this to them in confidence. I would look at the culture that you’re working in to choose the best way to approach this situation.

I like to keep an eye on each of my team members / close colleagues and try to connect with each of them to make sure that as a Manager, I am keeping their mental health / effectiveness as a priority. To do this, I may have a coffee with them as a catch up or alternatively join the lunch table and check on them. I often use my gut instinct more than actual conversations to check on my team as I’ve found that my gut instinct is extremely reliable at sensing when something is not right!

Once the burnout hits

This can be the most important time for you to support your colleague/friend. It’s a time where they may need your time to just talk to them or spend some time with them. I was often encouraged to do something active but non strenuous whilst recovering from a burnout so this could be also be a suggestion. One thing to emphasise during this time is that any commitment they make may be cancelled if they do not feel up to it/ready.

As a colleague, you may be confined by the limits of your HR policy for supporting or contacting someone on sick leave so please make sure you’re abiding by any local rules you may have. I have sent short messages (non work related) or check-ins just to let them know that they were in my thoughts.

Ideas for ways to support a colleague/friend:

  • Send them regular short non work related messages
  • Visit for a coffee/tea/beverage
  • Go for a walk/cycle/exercise
  • Listen to them

How long does it take?

The recovery from a burnout can be weeks or months, depending on the severity of their burnout and exhaustion. The recovery time will also depend on how seriously the person takes their recovery. Here are two examples:

  • Kevin was struggling with stress for over a year before being signed off sick. He spent the next 3 months off work and working with his doctors to recover fully and learn coping mechanisms. He returned to work in a staggered manner (3 mornings a week, leading to a full week over the course of the next 2 months).
  • Pritesh refused to be signed off sick with his burnout. He continued to work for another 6 months and then tried to restart work after a week of being home. He refused to rest and struggled to handle his burnout for another 8months until his employer stepped in to support him.

What’s the most important thing to realise?

A burnout is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of prolonged stress. If you have any of the signs of burnout, please consider talking to someone to get support.

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