Someone you care about may be experiencing burnout

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about appears to be struggling with burnout.

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This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation.

What do you notice?

Someone you care about seems like they may be experiencing burnout, and you’re concerned. They might be complaining about feeling unwell most of the time, or having aches, pains and sore muscles with no direct link to a cause. Or maybe they seem more irritable – or just not acting like their usual self. Maybe they complain about low energy or a feeling of “overwhelm” which has resulted in lower productivity in life for them.

What do you need to understand?

When we are feeling mentally well, we feel energized, we sleep well, we feel confident and we find that managing stress is not an overwhelming task but part of life. But when someone is experiencing burnout, their baseline way of feeling and acting is compromised. Burnout is a result of the body trying to manage constant stress. While stress is a normal part of life, experiencing stress over a sustained period of time – chronic stress with no downtime – will negatively impact the body and the brain. Burnout can lead to emotional distress which can increase the likelihood of conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.

What do you need to consider?

If you are concerned about someone who may be experiencing burnout, consider this. While they might have acted in a certain way before experiencing these symptoms, try not to have expectations of them that are reflective of their past ways of being while they address their own personal health. Someone experiencing burnout might feel detached, cynical, and irritable with others, and less compassionate. Be patient with their feelings knowing they are a result of burnout and keep an eye on whether they’re trying to continue their pace of life or expectations for themselves that contributed to the burnout in the first place. Encourage them to take a pause to reassess life and allow time for the body and mind to heal after going through a period of chronic stress. It also helps to understand that humans do not have unlimited sources of energy to expend on others, but have personal needs (such as sleep, good nutrition, social connection and downtime) that are necessary to maintain good health.

Engaging in a supportive conversation?

Have the right mindset

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Be careful not to let your own hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual, play a role. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. These can make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and approach the conversation with the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my own desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?


Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them – but don’t add your own assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:

  • “I noticed you’re complaining a lot about sore muscles and aches and pains lately, and I’m concerned. Would you like to talk about how you’re feeling?”
  • “You’ve been mentioning that you just can’t get enough sleep to feel energized. What do you think’s impacting that?”

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person’s open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this happens, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to come back to you and share when they’re ready.

You could say:

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. The individual may not be ready to discuss the issue yet, but you’ve shown you care. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • "Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation


Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t feel their needs are being met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand correctly.

Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:

  • “I’m hearing you feel a lot of muscle pain without understanding where it might be coming from. Is that right?”
  • “It sounds like it’s hard to empathize or feel compassion right now – is that what I’m hearing?”
  • “You’ve shared that you’re not feeling energized no matter what you do. Is that correct?”

Highlight strengths

Mention and highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Here’s an example of “calling out strengths” in the conversation:

  • “Thank you for sharing these uncomfortable feelings. I know it’s hard to share our feelings when not feeling at our best. I want you to know I hear you and I’m here to support you.”

Identify support

Identify what support the individual is open to and help connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist they pursue support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified the need to address the feelings of your body and mind being overstressed. How can I support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding resources that might help to address this – would that be helpful?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your own abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do to create change in the other person’s life.

Create an action plan

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Offer a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.

Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to take action on. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend is experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences:

For leaders trying to help employees, see:

Contributors include.articlesJessica GrassMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2022 to present

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