I am often guilty of putting the most effort into a friendship when everything is going well with that friend—that is, when we are both in relatively happy stages of life, in good health, and in a good rhythm of communication.
The more important part of being a true friend, however, is being there for the other when things are not going so well.
Sometimes a friend may ask us for support, but often, we have to be able to notice for ourselves when something is wrong. One increasingly common problem to look out for—which BuzzFeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen went so far as to call “the millennial condition” earlier this month—is burnout.
Burnout is defined by the Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health as the “emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from a combination of exposure to environmental and internal stressors and inadequate coping and adaptive skills.” It’s a complicated, downplayed, and often misunderstood condition. It’s complicated in that it often appears quite similar to other mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and it can manifest itself differently in different people. It’s downplayed because it is often ignored or diminished. And it’s misunderstood because, in truth, it is still not properly understood by anyone! Scientists cannot agree on one definition for burnout (though for the purposes of this article, we’ll proceed with the one above), and it is difficult to procure statistics to study it properly.
If you suspect that a friend is suffering from burnout, she may not tell you herself. Maybe she hasn’t yet realized it; maybe she is suffering so much that reaching out for help seems like a gargantuan effort; maybe she’s afraid to be vulnerable.
This is when it’s important to be there for a friend—and to know what to look for. The following are typical symptoms of burnout. (Before we dive in, please note that burnout symptoms and depression symptoms often overlap. The difference lies in the fact that burnout is generally due to work-related stress, while causes of depression can range from any blend of genetic, mental, social, medical, or hormonal factors. If your friend is depressed, she will need different forms of help and support.)
Perhaps you start to notice that your friend is not answering your phone calls or texts, or maybe she’s turning down your invitations to go on a run or to meetup for coffee. At first, it may be easy either to dismiss her behavior or to get upset with her, as you may take her perceived coldness personally. But before wasting time on hurt feelings, take a closer look at your friend’s behavior. Is she only avoiding you, or is she withdrawing from other friends or her family as well?
As Dr. Beverly Potter explains, “People caught in the burnout cycle withdraw. By cutting themselves off from friends and colleagues they deprive themselves of the support they desperately need.” This withdrawal, or detachment, often takes the form of isolation.
02. Changes in Sleep and Diet
Does your friend seem unusually tired all of the time? Is she complaining of insomnia? Have you noticed any sudden changes in her appetite or weight? All of these signs can point to burnout. A study of 230 working women found that women experiencing burnout had significantly higher scores in emotional and uncontrolled eating than women who were not experiencing burnout. It is also common for people who are going through burnout to consume increased amounts of alcohol. If your friend is experiencing burnout, she may be especially vulnerable to unhealthy sleep and eating habits, which in turn can contribute to increased illness, headaches, stomach pains, and more.
03. Emotional Exhaustion
Exhaustion does not simply imply a lack of sleep. While physical exhaustion can certainly point to burnout—as mentioned above—an emotional depletion of energy is also an indicator. If your friend is emotionally exhausted, then she may feel like her power over her life is slipping away and everything is sliding out of her control. She may feel trapped by the demands of her schedule, and she may be struggling to handle her emotions.
Pay attention to whether your friend is still able to connect with you on an emotional level, or whether she seems emotionally drained and unable to process and convey her feelings.
Has your friend become uncharacteristically irritable, cynical, or tense lately? Perhaps she is not treating you with the same patience and compassion she once did, and she just doesn’t seem happy. Irritability is often the result of pent-up frustration from feeling inadequate, stuck, or chronically unhappy. If your friend is snapping at you unfairly, getting angry at silly things, or overreacting to minor situations, these could be signs of burnout.
Have you observed that your friend is feeling particularly down or becoming increasingly pessimistic lately? Perhaps she used to be a very positive person, but she no longer has the zest for life that she once possessed. Everything seems meaningless to her now—her work, her hobbies, her ambitions—and you are starting to pick up on those feelings of hopelessness. Because burnout can make one feel as if nothing is going well in one’s life, it often leads to feelings of pessimism and a glass-half-empty kind of attitude.
06. Lack of Productivity
Forgetting about a plan you made together is one thing. But if you notice a new consistent lack of focus and productivity with your friend, it’s time to take a closer look. If she is becoming significantly forgetful or lacks the motivation and attention she once had, then she might need help. This is especially true if you know that your friend is working longer hours or has more demands at home.
How to help her
If your friend is in fact suffering burnout, then the obvious question that follows is: “How do I help her?”
First of all, it’s important to listen to her. After taking note of a number of burnout signs, engage your friend in an open conversation, giving her the opportunity to talk about what she is going through and how she feels. She will be most likely to open up to you if you are understanding, patient, and empathic.
If your friend is reluctant to open up about her situation, help her realize something is wrong by gently pointing to her physical or mental symptoms. You can voice your concerns for her, but be careful not to minimize her pain or come across as judgmental. Remember that what she is going through is far more difficult than your (often very real) pain resulting from her increasingly changing behavior.
Second, encourage your friend to take charge of her life and her mental and physical health. Encourage her to say no to activities or commitments that are burning her out; to make healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating and sleeping well; and to practice self-care, whatever that looks like for her. Help her to overcome physical and emotional fatigue by inviting her out to activities that will help her unwind and let go of built-up stress. If she turns down your coffee invitation, try again another day. And while the support of family and friends is essential to her recovery, it is often a smart idea to encourage her to find a psychologist, counselor, or doctor who can better serve her.
And finally, just be there for her. Be patient. Give her time, space, support, and love. Give her a judgment-free environment. But most importantly, don’t give up on her! If your advice is left unheeded, back off a little, and you may witness her take the leap necessary to turn her life around on her own.
Nobody said being a good friend is easy—but it’s when it isn’t easy that it matters the most.