A Guide to Burnout for Friends and Supervisors

With all the change in the world and across workplaces, it is likely that most friends and supervisors know someone experiencing burnout.  This article gives tips for recognizing and supporting others.

Detecting Signs of Burnout

Here are 10 signs that someone you care about or lead may be experiencing burnout:

  • Decreased productivity: If an employee who was previously efficient and productive starts to show a decline in their work output, it could be a sign of burnout. While it is easy to blame poor performers for a problem, a gentle conversation may be a better first step to explore what is happening.
  • Increased absenteeism: Frequent absences or tardiness can be a sign that an employee is feeling overwhelmed or disengaged. Instead of doing clock watching and time sheet math, ask good questions to learn about what may be going on.
  • Changes in mood or behavior: If an employee who was previously cheerful and engaged becomes irritable, withdrawn, or disinterested, resist the urge to get annoyed or avoid them or write them off. Instead, invite a casual chat – and see if they open up.
  • Decreased motivation or enthusiasm: As with mood changes, if you notice someone seems less motivated or enthusiastic, approach the topic in an open and non-judgmental way. Remember that in this case, it is about the person – not the work.
  • Increased errors or mistakes: As with decreased productivity, if you notice someone is making errors – or if they mention to you as an issue – it could be a sign that they are feeling overwhelmed. Talk about options.
  • Complaints of physical symptoms: If an employee frequently complains of headaches, stomachaches or fatigue, it could be a sign of burnout.
  • Lack of focus or concentration: If someone seems distracted or less focused than usual, it is easy to write it off or make up reasons – but these are signs of possible burnout. Ask what’s happening and how you can help.
  • Negative attitude or cynicism: It can be troubling when someone is disruptive or overly cynical or negative at or about work. When it happens, it may be time to gently talk about burnout.
  • Decreased satisfaction with work: As with a negative attitude, if an employee is endlessly complaining about work, or expresses being less satisfied with their work or a desire to quit, it could be a sign of burnout.
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits: If a friend or family member is picking at their food, or eating mindlessly, or complaining about a regular lack of sleep, it may be time to gently ask what’s up. Remember – it is not about the food or sleep, it is about the underlying driver stressing them out.

Remember, these are potential signs. If you suspect burnout is a problem or possibility, it’s important to have open and honest conversations with your employees – and your friends – to understand their feelings and concerns.

Coaching and Coaxing

Ignoring burnout can lead to more serious physical and mental health issues for your employee or friend – and that won’t help anyone. So, if you suspect someone might be experiencing burnout, consider floating these options – you may get objections in response, but even if you just plant the idea, it may be a good first step.


These can be done by both supervisors and friends – even if a friend doesn’t know the content, they can facilitate a conversation process that may be helpful.

  • Help the person look at their day and see if they can identify ways to regularly introduce activities that help reduce stress, such as exercise, a walk around the building, a break to listen to energizing or relaxing music, hobbies at home and activities with friends or family.
  • Work with the person to set boundaries. Identify tasks that can be reduced in size, deferred or shared. Coaching them on how to talk with others may give them tools to better define or move boundaries in the future.
  • Offer support by listening, and possibly referring the person to an Employee Assistance Program, wellness services, coach or counselor. It is important for people to be able to talk about feelings and experiences – so give the person a chance to do that with you or with a professional.
  • Consider regularly inviting the person to take a break with you – or schedule periodic check-in calls without an agenda. Encourage the person to take regular breaks or leave to recharge and relax.
  • Work with the person to list out all their tasks and how they currently allocate time to them, write down goals and priorities and why they are important, and then determine what can be rethought to rebalance and reduce the load.

Here are some additional steps that are specific to supervisors:

  • Pause to consider when you last truly thanked someone or rewarded them for good effort or results. Take the time to give open, public, thoughtful and genuine praise.
  • Consider whether additional training or professional development would help the person readjust their perspective or provide new options for assignments that may give a needed change.
  • Review the person’s job description and assignments – are they realistic and fair for a single person given other changes in the office? Is the compensation appropriate?  Are adjustments needed for long-term satisfaction and sustainability?

What do all of these have in common?  Active listening, communication, empathy, care, and emotional intelligence. By engaging in these activities, you may be able to help someone take the steps needed to maintain a healthy work-life balance, manage stress more effectively and help someone get in touch with their own emotional and physical well-being. You could make a real difference in someone’s life!

Case Study: Mapping a World

We once worked with a manager who regularly detected that one of her top performers was teetering on burnout.  This was a periodic occurrence that was a natural – though unfortunate – side effect of the employee’s devotion and work ethic. When the manager saw this happening, she would set an hour aside with the employee – Jayne.  She started with chart paper and wrote “Jayne’s World” at the top. She then worked with Jayne to list all her current and ongoing activities, with a percent time allocation over a week along with it. She also wrote a column of activities that Jayne wanted to be doing – like exercise and dinner with family – that she was often missing due to perceived work demands.

Having all this in one place – instead of just in her head – helped Jayne process and reprioritize all her activities. Having her supervisor take the time to do this with her, and encourage her to build in more personal time was reassuring to Jayne. It also made her feel valued and cared for – building her loyalty over the long term.

The supervisor, in turn, was able to maximize impact by identifying more junior staff who could take over some of Jayne’s work, given her success in establishing a baseline process or approach.  There were some projects that Jayne had started well, that others could then carry forward. This helped everyone, including the manager who needed to expand capacity across the team. Reallocating work provides more opportunities to continue to grow – while also managing stress levels through careful monitoring.

Today, the manager has retired, and Jayne is a leader in the organization. She not only manages her own burnout risk by mapping out her own world all by herself, she also “pays it forward” by regularly engaging in the same activity with her own staff.  This is true succession planning – and has had multiplicative impacts over time and generations.

Next Steps for Supervisors

Are you a supervisor managing employees who are or may experience burnout?  What to have an impact like the case study above?  Here are some Pryor trainings that may help you manage this challenge – and help people grow without burning out:

See more in the training category of Management and Leadership!