How to Support Friends Struggling with Burnout

Validate their feelings.

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Recently, one of the most insightful social media posts I have seen go viral is credited to the poet Donna Ashworth. This post begins with these words:

You’re not imagining it, nobody seems to want to talk right now.

Messages are brief and replies late.

Talk of catch ups on Zoom are perpetually put on hold.

Group chats are no longer pinging all night long.

It’s not you.

It’s everyone.

Ashworth’s words capture where so many individuals are at this stage in the pandemic. We are nearing the one-year mark of COVID-19. Friends and loved ones are struggling to make it through “right now” which feels endless. Many people are physically and mentally spent, and burnout is rising on a global scale.

How can we help friends struggling, especially those facing burnout, in a way that shows we are here for them?

Offer tangible support.

Carrie Torn, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, recommends providing tangible support to friends dealing with burnout.

“Burnout is more than stress,” Torn explains. “It is usually the cumulative stress that turns into exhaustion, anxiety, depression and pessimism. Once we reach the point of burnout, our bodies are asking us to slow down.”

What kinds of tangible support can friends offer? Some of these actions may include dropping off a home cooked meal, offering to take care of their kids for an evening, or assisting with a stressful task. These actions, simple as they may be, help take something off a friend’s plate and give them space to take care of themselves.

Validate their feelings.

One of the hardest things someone struggling with burnout can do is acknowledge that they are feeling and experiencing burnout. Society often reinforces the idea that work should be prioritized above our well-being. However, it’s critical that we validate feelings of burnout and know that we do not need to experience it alone.

“A lot of people will not want to admit they are burning out or even notice,” says Sarah O’Leary, associate marriage and family therapist at Estes Therapy. “Taking a moment to be in tune with yourself, to honor yourself by realizing that you are becoming depleted and share that with someone is a big deal.”

When a friend tells you that are experiencing burnout, how should you respond? Avoid saying things like ‘you’ll be okay’ or ‘just keep at it.’ These statements can be invalidating and may even elicit a feeling of hopelessness.  

The best approach, according to O’Leary, is to validate your friend’s feelings. Ask your friend what they think might help them. Asking allows those struggling with burnout to share their own thoughts and ideas of what might help. It also creates a safe space where they feel encouraged to open up.

Listen carefully and listen without judgement. Afterwards, you may talk together about next steps like setting boundaries, self-care practices, or taking some time off.

What if my friend doesn’t realize they’re facing burnout?

Let’s return to recognizing burnout for a moment. O’Leary recommends that if a friend is able to recognize burnout, you may ask them to share their experience with you. Talking it out with a friend allows them to feel supported and get a head start on some action steps, like the suggestions listed above, they can take next.

However, not every friend may notice they are burning out. They may choose not to bring it up in conversation. Close friends may observe friends that are stretching themselves too thin and are beginning to grow distant. If you find this is the case with your friend, check in with them.

What should you say when checking in?

“Try stating ‘Hey, I’m noticing you’re not responding to my messages as frequently lately. I hope you’re taking care of yourself — it’s so easy to wear ourselves down these days!’” O’Leary says.

She also adds that sharing some of your own struggles with friends can go a long way.

“It’s okay if you’re struggling with the same thing,” O’Leary says. “It can be so helpful for friends to hear that they’re not alone. Just sharing your own struggles can help your friend feel not alone.”

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