What to do if you’re worried about someone who is struggling with stress

By Thijs Launspach

The number of people with dangerously high-stress levels runs into hundreds of thousands every year. Several thousand of them even end up sitting at home because they burn out.

Of course, this is especially grim for the people facing such burnout themselves. But it can also be quite difficult for the people around them – colleagues, friends, family, partners. They often feel as if they are watching helplessly while a traffic accident takes place.

What can you do when someone you love falls into burnout? It is a question I am often asked at lectures by caring loved ones. My answer is generally a bit disappointing to them: you can’t fix it for that person, unfortunately. Indeed, it may very well be that your good advice and your lovingly set up care plans are actually working in vain. All these good intentions may actually be perceived as extra pressure, resulting in frustration for both. However apt your suggestions may be, the chances that the person in burnout will pick them up are not that great. After all, a solution is often only a solution if someone has thought of it themselves.

So what can you do if you want to help someone with burnout? Firstly, it may help to share your concerns with them. Make sure you do this tactfully and avoid making the other person feel like they are doing something wrong. The best approach is to speak about your observations in the first person: ‘I’ve noticed recently that you have been […] and I get the impression you’re under a lot of stress. Am I right?’

After that, you can indicate that you are available for what the person may need. This works well if you do it in a non-pushy, non-committal way. For instance, say that the person need not hesitate to call you when he or she wants to go for a walk. Don’t show up at the door at eight o’clock every day with your walking shoes, but leave the initiative with the person.

Listen, don’t coach

In conversations, it often helps to ask interested, open-ended questions about the experience of the person with burnout. Talk about your own experiences with stress too, just to get the conversation going. Seeing that you are vulnerable as well, helps to lower their guard and acts as a signal that it is safe for them to discuss their feelings with you. Giving space to share feelings and experiences is important as well, try to ask open questions about how they deal with pressure. Simple, neutral questions like ‘You’re awfully busy, aren’t you?’ or ‘What do you do when you’re feeling stressed?’ can create the kind of opening that encourages the other person to speak freely.

Setting yourself up as an unsolicited coach certainly does not help. Therefore, give as little advice as possible. “You should just do X, yo!” may give you the feeling that you are helping, but it is often not perceived that way. After all, you are closing the conversation with this kind of comment. Besides: just because something works well for you doesn’t necessarily mean it will for the other person.

Expect also to meet some resistance. After all, you are interfering in how someone is living their life and they won’t always thank you for that (at first). You will most likely be dealing with a person whose basic stress level is very high. They could quickly accuse you of meddling in their affairs (which, let’s face it, you kind of are). So make sure you’re not too pushy; if the other person makes it clear that they do not appreciate your comments, just let it go. It is not your job to ‘save’ them.

In short, caring for someone with burnout is above all about indicating that you are available. Pushing, taking over and rushing are out of the question. For the person caring, this can feel like sitting on your hands. But don’t worry: just by indicating that you are there, you are already doing a lot.

In a nutshell: What should you do if you are worried about someone?

Do’s:

  • Talk about your own experiences with stress to start the conversation and show the other person that it’s safe to talk about the subject with you.
  • Ask how the other person copes with stress, for example by saying: ‘You’re awfully busy these days, aren’t you?’
  • If you are very worried, it may help to share your concerns (in a neutral manner) with them.
  • Offer help, without forcing your help on others.

Don’ts:

  • Avoid giving unsolicited advice; it often leads to resistance and irritation: ‘How would you know what’s best for me?!’
  • Avoid giving the impression that you know everything.
  • Never interfere in another person’s affairs when they don’t want you to.

About the author

Thijs Launspach is a psychologist, TEDX and keynote speaker and author of Crazy Busy: Keeping Sane in a Stressful World.

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