Stress is a part of life. School, work, family, friends and everything in between can be a source. Your friends might even vent to you about things that are stressing them out. But how stressed is too stressed? If a loved one’s stress levels seem dangerously high, they could be experiencing burnout.
Want to help, but not sure how? We talked to experts on the OhioHealth Provider and Associate Well-Being team, Lois Sallee and Kristi McClure, to learn how to spot burnout in others and ways you can help.
What is burnout?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘burnout’ before—but what does it really mean? “A lot of people get frustrated and dislike the word burnout because it’s used everywhere so broadly,” McClure explains. “But the World Health Organization has a very specific definition for it. It is a work-related syndrome comprised of three symptoms: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a lack of personal achievement.” Let’s dive a little deeper into what each of these symptoms mean.
- Emotional Exhaustion – Feeling like there’s no more gas in the tank. “If you wake up in the morning and feel like you just can’t—can’t laugh, can’t cry. That is emotional exhaustion,” McClure says.
- Depersonalization – Feeling disconnected from your work community and seeing others from a not-so-positive perspective. “This means seeing people as ‘other’ than yourself. In healthcare, this could be referring to people as their diagnosis or room number versus their name,” McClure says.
- Lack of personal achievement – When you know you’re not doing your best, or not challenging yourself to your full ability, because you simply don’t have the energy.
Excessive stress can lead to burnout, and everyone has a different “stress threshold.” Stress can come from different areas within our lives, such as family and work. We welcome certain stressors; ones that motivate us to succeed and thrive. “Our team’s goal is to create an environment where everyone can thrive,” Sallee explains.
“It varies by person. Some people thrive under pressure, and some don’t. When unwelcome stress accumulates, that’s when burnout can occur.”
How to identify burnout in others
If you suspect someone around you is burnt out, consider the three symptoms. Do they look exhausted or tired? Are they more cynical, aggressive, or angry than usual? Have they mentioned feeling unproductive or unsatisfied, even if they work hard? If so, burnout could be to blame.
Observe their behavior. Are they consistently working overtime? Do they get enough sleep? If you’re close with them, you may have a better idea of whether or not they show signs of burnout.
How to help someone who is burnt out
Before you extend yourself to help others, check in with yourself first. You can’t save another ship if yours is sinking. If you notice you’re showing symptoms, read about how to overcome burnout.
Once you suspect someone is experiencing burnout, McClure and Sallee say there are a few things you can do to offer help:
Ask how they’re doing (twice)
There’s, “How are you?” and then there’s, “How are you, really?” Many people automatically reply to the first question, saying they’re “good” or “fine,” even if they’re not, to avoid making people uncomfortable. If this happens, ask again—it shows you’re open to listen. “You’d be surprised how their answer really does change. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true,” McClure says.
If appropriate, express that you’ve noticed some changes in their behavior or that you have some concerns. McClure and Sallee encourage opening a discussion and showing that you’re willing to listen.
Offer to help with tasks
If you have the ability, offer to take some things off their plate. “Asking, ‘What can I do for you?’ instead of, ‘Can I help you with anything?’ makes a big difference. It’s very specific because it leads to an answer,” McClure says. “It’s the most subtle shift in the question, but it shows you’re ready and willing to help.”
Check in, but don’t push
Sometimes, others won’t be receptive to your trying to help. Knowing when to ask questions and when to step back can help make sure you don’t accidentally cross any boundaries. “It’s important to have some sort of connection with the person. There has to be a safe space for the person to open up,” Sallee says.
If you’re concerned about a close loved one, you’ll likely already have mutual trust to discuss issues. If you’re not very close to the person, they might not be comfortable discussing with you, and that’s okay. “If you notice behaviors that indicate the person is in a crisis, such as talking about self-harm or giving their items away, then you can consider reaching out to a third party,” McClure explains. “Otherwise, you really just need to express that you’re open and available to listen and share experiences. It really depends on your relationship with the person and the boundaries in place.”
If you or a loved one are experiencing extreme stress or burnout, reach out to trusted resources such as your primary care provider or a mental health clinician (many employers offer free counseling sessions through an Employee Assistance Program). You can also call the Ohio CareLine, a toll-free emotional support call service, at 1-800-720-9616 for confidential support.