Experts in the Media

Marny Lishman – Body+Soul

Health & Community Psychologist

How to tell if your partner is close to burnout… and how to talk about it.

Here’s how to tune in and support your partner when they might be heading for burnout.

In relationships, we can often find ourselves tuning into the not-so-subtle changes in our partner’s well-being. The raised voice might clearly demonstrate they’re angry, the tears might show they’re upset, or the one-too-many wines after work might tell us they’ve had a stressful day at the office.

We’re often the closest person to our partner, so we have the power to hone in when things aren’t quite right. But in our busy lives, with our own stressors and strains, we might miss out on some of the more subtle but tell-tale signs of an increasingly common mental health condition manifesting in the one we love… burnout.

Burnout itself can be life-halting. It is a state of exhaustion that renders people unable to function properly. It happens when someone is subjected to prolonged periods of stress, particularly in demanding or high-pressure working environments, where there is a constant overload and burden on their capabilities.

It’s usually talked about in terms of occupational stress, but it can also rear its ugly head when a partner is under a large amount of emotional stress or navigating negative experiences that exceed their own psychological capabilities for a prolonged period of time.

But burnout doesn’t just hit all at once, it can creep up on people, so much so that they (or even you) don’t notice until they’re quite literally at breaking point. It often involves a simmering pot of emotions that boil over a long period of time, where someone was just too busy to notice, feel them, process them or work to change them. Then over time, that person slowly starts shutting down and becoming different to who they were before.

Whether it’s a slow shift in demeanour, the gradual loss of enjoyment in activities they once loved, or an increasing exhaustion that gets stronger every day, recognising the signs of burnout in a partner can be crucial to nurturing a healthy relationship.

Here are seven warning signs that your partner could be heading for burnout:

#1. They seem distant

You’ve always felt connected to your partner but lately, you’ve sensed an emotional distance. It’s almost like they’re physically present, but no one’s psychologically home. Burnout can impair cognitive function, making it challenging for people to concentrate or even focus on the task or person in front of them. You might also notice they’re more disconnected or withdrawn from their mates, colleagues and family members.

#2. Loss of enjoyment in activities

It feels like their spark has dimmed. Your partner’s usual energy and zest for life have turned into a reluctance to participate in the activities they once loved. They may decline invitations to social events, prefer solitude, or exhibit a general reluctance to engage with others. Burnout often leads to social withdrawal or isolation.

#3. Physical ailments

Burnout often manifests physically, with symptoms such as headaches, frequent colds, muscle tension, fatigue, and changes in sleep patterns. Pay close attention to any unexplained physical ailments your partner may be experiencing and how often they are unwell.

#4. They hate their job

In the context of professional burnout, your partner may exhibit behaviours such as becoming increasingly cynical about work, becoming more unproductive or disorganised, and obsessively focusing on work-related stressors (such as unreasonable workloads, difficult managers etc).

#5. Personality changes

Think about your partner’s personality… was it the same this time last year? Maybe they used to be positive, but now they turn all conversations negative, seem more irritated than usual, and aren’t excited for the future. They may feel a sense of hopelessness that you’ve never witnessed before. Burnout can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety or depression, so the depths of fear, dread or a drop in mood can all be indicators.

#6. Neglecting themselves

Your partner may have always prided themselves in their healthy habits but lately, you’ve noticed they’ve been neglecting self-care routines, such as exercise, healthy eating, or taking time out to recharge. They might also be ignoring their physical appearance or hygiene. Coping with burnout can also lead your partner to rely on substances such as alcohol or drugs as a means of self-soothing.

#7. Avoiding work around the house

When we’re exhausted, the little energy we have is reserved for basic survival. We lose focus on anything secondary, and our body reserves our energy to help us get through the day. All the little daily chores and tasks fall right down the priority list. Burnout sufferers don’t have the mental or physical energy to do anything outside of what’s absolutely necessary.

Burnout is so much more than being tired… it’s a type of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion. However, the signs that indicate someone is on the path to burnout are not always as obvious as you might think.

While many of these signals could also be signs of other conditions, noticing the subtle changes in our loved ones allows us to open up that first ‘safe conversation’ about how they’re feeling, and why they could be feeling like this and offer help.

This first incredibly important step can help strengthen your connection and steer them on a different pathway… away from burnout and slowly but surely, back to brilliant.

Dr Marny Lishman is a health and community psychologist and a wellbeing and mindset coach. She is the author of ‘Burnout to Brilliant’. You can find her online here.