Even before the pandemic, Ian Sells says he and his wife were snapping at each other over the smallest things. They’d usually apologize and talk about their issues afterward, but the couple still felt like they were walking on eggshells in the relationship. It wasn’t surprising that stress and burnout bled into their relationship: Ian worked full-time and his wife runs a side business on top of caring for their children, 3 and 5. The unusual demands of 2020 worsened the problems.
“We were running on overdrive,” says Sells, a 39-year-old CEO of an e-commerce company in San Diego. “The worst part is, we had unspoken and unmet expectations of each other, which caused us to become more frustrated.”
Luckily, Sells says, he and his wife realized they were both burned out and got help before it was too late. But their pressure-cooker lifestyle isn’t unusual, nor is it unusual for burnout to affect relationships: In a Deloitte work stress survey, 83 percent of the 1,000 respondents said work burnout had a negative impact on their personal relationships. Among parents, mothers tend to suffer burnout more often than fathers.
Parents might feel helpless when their partner shows signs of burnout, but they’re actually in a great position to help. And because burnout can worsen and turn into depression, it’s crucial to be proactive about it.
Burnout is common and isn’t exclusively related to work, mental health experts say. It shares many of the same symptoms as depression, which can make it difficult to identify.
“Burnout and depression are both marked by low mood, fatigue and lack of motivation,” says psychotherapist and licensed master social worker Catherine Hall. “The only discernible differences between the two are the cause and the remedy. Burnout is caused by overwork and exhaustion, [whereas] depression has a wide range of triggers.”
Correctly identifying whether your partner is experiencing burnout or depression isn’t important — what is important is that a partner struggling with their mental health gets help.
“During periods of prolonged stress, our bodies have different ways of coping. Our stress response is really on a continuum,” ays psychologist Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., vice president of mission engagement for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Burnout symptoms overlap with what we see in depression, too. People talk about burnout being separate from depression, but it could be that someone showing signs of burnout might really be depressed.”
Burnout is typically characterized by a response to stress that’s more about disengagement, where people don’t feel connected to what they’re doing, don’t see any joy in it, and feel negative about it, Marshall says. If you suspect your partner is struggling with burnout, what can you do? Here are other signs of burnout to look for if your partner seems to be struggling, and how to help.
1. Understand What Burnout Looks Like
Diminished boundaries in all areas of life, especially work, could lead to feelings of demoralization, burnout, and apathy, says Leela R. Magavi, M.D., a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry. Magavi has worked with mothers who say they’ve felt emotional and physical fatigue due to increased work hours and expectations, particularly amid the pandemic.
“They say what hurts them most is when they feel like their efforts and hard work are not being appreciated by loved ones,” Magavi says. “This creates feelings of loneliness and helplessness.”
Burnout manifests differently depending on the person, but people with burnout might be irritable and quick to anger, as Sells and his wife found. They might feel low commitment and a lack of interest in work, get frustrated quickly or feel emotionally numb, says psychiatrist Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD. A burned out person might have physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach or muscle aches, higher blood pressure and might be less able to ward off infections due to a dampened immune system. Other signs include sadness, hopelessness and cynicism.
“It’s feeling like you have nothing more to give to the people around you,” says licensed mental health counselor Mary Joye. “Someone with burnout may say, ‘I can’t take anymore’ when what they really mean is, ‘I can’t give anymore.’ They don’t just burn the candle at both ends, they have no candle left to burn.”
Moments of burnout can be followed by moments of resilience, says Diana M. Concannon, PsyD, from Alliant University. Remember that “burnout is not an event — it’s a process,” she says.
Keep an eye out for changes in your partner, Marshall says. People tend to explain things away because it’s easier, but it’s helpful to consider whether changes in a partner’s behavior have persisted. If so, “Use it as an opportunity to have a conversation about what you’re noticing,” Marshall says. “The only way to really know is to engage the person in a conversation.”
2. Listen actively
Open up a dialogue with a partner who seems to be struggling by saying something like, “You seem to be distressed at this moment; it must be really hard on you,” or “Let’s sit for a moment. Tell me how you feel,” says Rashmi Parmar, M.D., a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry. You can also ask, “How can I make things easier for you? I would love to support you in whatever way I can.”
Maintain eye contact, nod to show you’re listening, and engage with follow-up questions and comments about your partner’s feelings, advises clinical psychologist Erin O’Callaghan, PhD director of therapy for Brightside. One of the most helpful things you can do for a partner experiencing burnout is provide validation and understanding.
Less validating for people is telling them you suspect they’re burned out, Parmar says.
“Avoid labeling it, even when you know it’s probably the case,” she says. “Avoid focusing on or feeding into negative feelings, which can end up flaring the situation rather than calming things down.”
Sometimes well-meaning comments can be construed as dismissive or minimizing. Don’t tell your partner they should just get some rest or stop worrying so much, for example, Parmar says.
“Instead, ask them what kind of help or support they prefer,” she says. Telling them everything will be fine, for another example, is likely a false reassurance that doesn’t acknowledge that some work might be necessary to get to constructive solutions.
Also, avoid saying, “I know exactly how you feel,” Parmar says. “Avoid shifting the focus to yourself during the conversation, even though it might be true.”
3. Find ways to lighten the load
There’s plenty you can do to help a partner get through feelings of burnout. Emotional and physical closeness among couples appears to buffer the effects of stress, noted the authors of a study published in 2019. Another study published in 1989 concluded that “alone time,” or “social withdrawal,” helped air traffic controllers with elevated stress levels return to normal.
But admittedly, it can be difficult for one parent to shoulder more responsibility, and a partner who does take on more to support their partner might run the risk, over time, of burnout himself. Making it more difficult is that many of the symptoms of burnout — withdrawal, irritability, joylessness about the relationship or parenthood — tend to push partners away, even when they’re eager to help.
“Remember that cynicism can be an effect of burnout, therefore people that have burnout might not be very sensitive to your emotions,” says social psychologist Kinga Mnich, Ph.D. “It’s important not to take it personally and to be understanding.”
Once you’ve listened to your partner and have a better handle on how to help, do it. Depression is more complex, but burnout can be relieved by concrete, and often easy, measures to lighten your partner’s load. If you can afford it, send your partner out for a spa day, an overnight mini vacation or even a fitness class away from the home, suggests Michael Levitt, the founder and Chief Burnout Officer of The Breakfast Leadership Network and author of Burnout Proof. Hire a cleaning service so your home is orderly when she returns.
Although pampering and relaxing can help alleviate symptoms of burnout, remedies don’t have to be expensive.
“The other parent can help by doing simple things such as cooking or ordering dinner as often as they can,” Levitt says.
Also free is simply letting a burned out partner sleep. Adequate sleep is crucial in recovering from and preventing burnout, Mnich says: “Sleep regulates our hormones, allows the brain to learn, separates important information from unimportant information, and most importantly, gets rid of waste. The brain produces debris throughout the day, aka brain waste.”
Taking on more of the childcare and household duties can have a positive effect on a partner experiencing burnout. But don’t assume a night off from parenting is a Band-Aid that will fix everything, O’Callaghan says.
“A couple of days away from the children may definitely help parents restore their rest and reconnect with each other,” O’Callaghan says. “But long-term stress related to family functioning and other external stressors are what leads to parenting burnout. In addition to taking time away, it’s critically important … to address any issues in the home that are perpetuating burnout.”
4. Connect with mental health resources
To some people, burnout might seem less scary to talk about or more socially acceptable than depression, Marshall says. So it’s important not only to take burnout seriously but to be aware that someone who says they’re feeling burned out might actually be suffering from depression.
“Sometimes people talk about burnout as a safe way to talk about depression, so that can be a signal to engage further,” Marshall says. “It could be a safer way to bring it up, or they may not have experienced it before so might not realize they’re depressed.”
Which, again, is why the armchair diagnosis isn’t as crucial as listening to how your partner’s feeling, she says.
“When you reach out and say, ‘Hey, I notice you don’t seem as engaged, or you seem really unhappy,’ use that as an opportunity to talk about mental health,” Marshall says. “Whether it’s burnout, or depression or stress overload, there is help and support for that, but a lot of people in it don’t realize that.”
With the help of a therapist, Sells and his wife worked on clarifying and verbalizing their expectations and needs of each other, which helped tremendously, he says.
“Once you remove yourself from the cause, focus on more worthwhile things, and have your well-deserved break, things become better,” he says.
The key to supporting someone experiencing burnout is patience, Concannon says: “Burnout develops over time; time is also needed to overcome it.”