How to react when your colleague is burning out

Jun 25, 2020

4 mins

How to react when your colleague is burning out
Emma Cullinan

Psychotherapist and writer

Your colleague seems frustrated and is prone to angry outbursts, makes cynical remarks about their job, and looks depressed most of the time. Do you think they are just being annoying or perhaps wonder if there is something behind their behavior, especially if it is out of character? All of the above could be signs that your colleague may be suffering from burnout. How should you react and help in such a situation?

What is burnout?

People who suffer from burnout feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and stressed by the constant battle to keep up with their workload, says Herbert Freudenberger, who popularized the term in his 1974 book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.

It took until 2003 for “burnout” to be classified as a syndrome by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In WHO’s 2019 update, burnout was described as:

  • Energy depletion or exhaustion.
  • Increased mental distance, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job.
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Why does it happen?

While it is the staff who suffer, the problem, according to WHO, Freudenberger, and many experts, is that burnout is mainly caused by organizations and management. It comes from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, states WHO. Meanwhile Christina Maslach and Michael P Leiter, in their research on burnout published in the journal World Psychiatry, point the finger at “too much work, long working hours, chronic staff shortages, an aggressive administrative environment, and lack of support from management. Poor relationships with management and supervisors have also been identified as related to burnout.”

Poor management serves neither staff nor the company. Work-related stress, which affects 600,000 in the UK, costs companies more than £5 million a year, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Sufferers take an average of 21 sick days off a year and work-related stress, anxiety and depression accounts for 54% of the days lost to illness.

What you can do if you’re a manager

What can you do if a colleague displays signs of burnout? Due to the fact that an organizational or management issue often causes employee burnout, it is easier to help if you are in a position to instigate effective changes at management level. Consider, perhaps, gathering staff together to say there is a problem, going to HR, or consulting a union if there is one.

Companies are actually obliged by law to prevent excess stress in employees, says the HSE; they have a “legal duty to assess the risks to its employees from work-related stress”.

Freudenberger is direct about what management needs to do. He suggests shorter working hours, regular job rotation, ongoing training, and supervision. Despite this knowledge, it often doesn’t happen, say Maslach and Leiter. “In general, the primary emphasis has been on individual strategies, rather than social or organizational ones,” they wrote.

What you can do if you’re a colleague

If you are a colleague at the same level as the person suffering from burnout, you could be experiencing the same work conditions. Being knowledgeable about burnout is especially helpful here. Bob, a teacher, said, “I’ve never had a colleague tell me they are experiencing burnout but they will certainly say, ‘I’m totally stressed’, as a cue for going for a coffee or walk to have a chat about work.”

While you are talking to them—which is a great way of helping anyone—you’ll be able to assess whether this is a temporary issue or if their problem is more serious, partly by looking for the signs of burnout described above, and then coming up with ways to help.

Maslach and Leiter suggest the following 13 tips:

  1. Change work patterns. For example, work less, take more breaks, avoid overtime, improve work-life balance.
  2. Develop coping skills.
  3. Obtain social and peer support.
  4. Relaxation strategies.
  5. Promote health and fitness.
  6. Develop a better self‐understanding, perhaps through therapy or self-help.
  7. Change how you do your job.
  8. Talk to HR or go to a union.
  9. Take a break: either holiday or sick leave.
  10. Have more control and autonomy
  11. Try to find some value in your work, maybe by focusing on how your role helps others.
  12. Set boundaries. Don’t overextend yourself. Learn how to say “no”.
  13. Tap into your creative side.

What if you’re working from home?

You might not be able to offer face-to-face support, but there are other ways of telling your colleague that you’re there for them. Offering support, even just in the form of validation, can be hugely helpful, and mutually beneficial.

Sarah, who works in promotions, has found solidarity with one of her colleagues. My manager can be so pushy and rude,” she said. “In Zoom conversations she will always criticize me if I take the lead—as if she is jealous. Then I noticed her doing it to my colleague who works on the social media side. One day, when he left the meeting [as scheduled], our boss did not even say goodbye to him, whereas everyone else in the meeting did. He texted me and said, ‘Wow, she couldn’t even bring herself to say goodbye.’ That started us supporting each other.

Sarah shows that even when working from home, support can work. Apart from talking about the issues at hand, you can also do activities together, which can take your mind off work issues and lift your mood. Perhaps suggest a lunchtime walk or exercise class, or after-work yoga. Alternatively, if you’re working from home, have a watch party or both do a live online class at the same time.

If you want to try tapping into your creative side as a solution, you could suggest that you and your colleague set up a creative-writing group or join an art class.

Use your inside knowledge

Colleagues can be especially helpful in supporting those with burnout because they know the organization and what is feasible. If you are going to help a coworker address overload by suggesting they take more breaks, do less overtime, and try to create a better work-life balance, you will know the chances of this realistically being a solution within your company.

The same goes for seeking a resolution of the problem at an organizational level by going to HR or the union. Again, you can discuss this with your colleague and decide how feasible it will be, and offer your backup if necessary.

Why everyone benefits

Burnout serves no one: it is bad for the individual, the company, society, and the economy. By offering support to a colleague to get through a tough time, you’re not just helping them. Your kindness and consideration could have a positive effect on a much broader range of people, including yourself.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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