Look around you. You probably know someone who’s burnt out or likely to burn out. You know, the one who’s overwhelmed with 121 things on their to-do list, often work late and on weekends, exhausted beyond words, cynical and frustrated.

We know these signs because we have seen them before. Most likely, we know what burnout is from an outrageous amount of experience.

But what can we do when we see a friend, a colleague or a family member going through the same yucky burnout? How do we even begin to help them when it might be hard or uncomfortable to share what he or she is going through?

You start small. You start with the basics. Here are some suggestions.

1.    Give Yourself Permission to Reach Out

‘Minding our business’ has somewhat become a modern mantra. Yes, I agree we shouldn’t dish out unwanted advice or get riled up over something that has no bearing on us simply because it’s annoying and takes a lot of our energy unnecessarily. But minding our business shouldn’t be mistaken to mean only being concerned with our own self-preservation and disregarding other peoples’ existence and welfare.

I say this because burnout is not just an individual issue. Burnout is so connected to structural imbalances at play and for that, requires a communal solution. And that starts with us not turning away from the burnout that affects others around us. This is why reaching out is so important.

When we reach out to those around us, we are letting someone know they are not alone and don’t have to be alone in their suffering. It can be as simple as asking someone if they are OK or how are they doing. To reach out is to let someone know you are there, available, and able to be of help should the need arise. And yes, if you’re offering help, be prepared to offer it.

In reality, it can be difficult for someone who’s in the burnout troughs to ask for help. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying and wait around for them to ask. Sometimes, this means it is on us to let them know we care, asking if they are OK or even telling them we know they are not.

A few years ago, I was on the edges of a full burnout blow up. But I refused to acknowledge it, let alone ask for help. Until a colleague told me she thinks what I was going was not OK. It was very hard to hear but it was exactly what I needed to kick start my recovery. Sometimes when we are deep in our burnout, brain all fuzzy and oblivious to its grip on our lives, we need someone – on the outside – to reach out and help us see things we don’t see so clearly.

2.    The Power of Holding Space

To hold space for someone is to bring our complete presence to the conversation without any judgment, pretense or expectations. That means put away your phone (or any other distractions), let go of any predetermined ideas or opinions you might have about their situation and give your fullest attention to that person in front of you.

Often when someone tells us they are burnt out or feeling stressed, it’s easy to hijack the conversation by telling them our opinion of what is wrong, what they should be doing instead of turning the conversation back to us, ‘I know how that feels. Like when that happened to me during… ‘

Instead of making it about them, we make it about us. We need to retrain ourselves to remember that holding space is about the person needing our support.

How can we then effectively hold space? For starters, when you’re providing support, check your ego at the door. Leave your judgment there. Whatever your opinions are, well-intent desire to help or advice – put them aside.

You must also resist the urge to fix the problem. This is incredibly hard to do when you’ve been down the road before, you know their pain and your empathetic self is screaming inside, ‘I’ve been there! Let me help you. You should really do this, not that!’

As a burnout recovery coach and someone who’s gone through multiple burnouts, it can be difficult sometimes to hold back when I see a familiar pattern in need of breaking or fixing. I have learned to take a step (or many) back and remind myself that although I can empathize and feel what the person is going through, it is not my responsibility to fix it for them. My role – and yours too – is to provide a space full of unconditional support and love for healing to begin.

3.    Listen Listen, and Listen.

Listening is one of those skills we think we are great at when in actuality that might not be quite the case. We may hear the words, follow the storyline and nod our heads but that doesn’t mean we are fully listening. While hearing is physiological, listening is more deliberate. It involves concentration, understanding, intuition, exploring what’s being said and the silences in between and so on.

To listen and listen well, we must start from a place of openness. This is especially so for topics such as burnout and mental health. Sometimes what we hear makes us uncomfortable, upset or angry ‘What you just told makes so mad at your boss right now!’

But hold on a minute there. 

We cannot be good listeners if we are quick to judge someone’s story, clouding it with our biases or desire to correct a wrong. This can be exceedingly hard to do when we feel connected to the story in some ways or if it happens to someone we love and care about.

But we need to remember this when we are listening; it is about them, not us. And for that, we ought to remain open to whatever truth that may come. We must also refrain from the temptation of hearing a few words, then spending time in our heads forming our reply, devising a plan for action for them and waiting to tell them what we think and what they should do. 

Listening is hard. Deep listening is even harder but not impossible. To begin, when someone is sharing their burnout story, just remember this is about them. Let them tell their story. Just listen. If your thoughts wander, it’s fine. Just come back to what’s being said and give your best. Keep practicing.

I get it. When it comes to burnout – something many of us have experienced – we can easily get swayed with wanting to fix the problem. We want to formulate a self-care plan or stand up for them because we believe they’ve been unfairly treated.

But before we get to that point just yet, let’s take a few steps back. Let us not forget that sometimes for a lot of people, taking that first step to heal can be scary. Opening up and sharing their struggles can make them feel vulnerable. We want to honor that. Which is why, we must come back to the basics of reaching out, holding space and genuinely listening to their story. 

So go on, reach out to someone you know who could use a little support today. It might just be what they need right now.

Nurhaida Rahim