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There are quite a few question aiming at or hinting towards avoiding academic burn-out, but I couldn't come across one that targets interaction with a colleague that has suffered from a serious burn-out, which can be very tricky as I am learning nowadays.

Background: A colleague of mine (office-mate actually) has suffered a pretty major crisis over the past year and had to take an extended leave of absence due to stress. The person in question was/is close to disputation but due to the fact that they could not handle being at work anymore, everything was postponed.

After several months away, my colleague is trying to get back in the game by starting off 20%. I heard that it didn't work out all too good the first attempt, a couple of weeks later they are attempting to start again. As we were chatting the other day, I realized that I can't really say much without tripping my colleague off, in the sense that the subject often raises old issues somehow and causes some frustration/stress for my colleague. That partially originates from the fact that most of what we have in common and talk about is work oriented somehow.

My natural reflex when I realize that the subject causes discomfort is to not feed the conversation and attempt to change the subject. But that doesn't really work too good, as it's not very discrete. I also suspect that specially avoiding small-talk with my office mate isn't very nice either, I don't want the person to feel isolated and alone. I mean the fact that a person had a stress-related problem, it's not something that one should be ashamed or embarrassed about, it shouldn't be awkward socially, but somehow it does feel like that.

Does anyone here have any experience about how to tackle a situation like this?

  • it's so odd hearing about situations so similar to mine... had to check the date to make sure it wasn't me who was the subject you're on about :) – hello_there_andy May 14 '14 at 19:59
16

It is a tricky situation, and there is no 'guidebook' way of helping your colleague or how to deal with their recovery - I can only offer an account of when I burnt out.

When I burnt out, my colleagues - both work and academic, rallied around and helped me get back on my feet. The way they did it was to be there and to simply listen - this was the key thing that helped me rise up. They also kept things as normal as possible and understood the times when I needed to vent - which over time, became less and less.

They also gave me my space - like an open invitation for me to join in the conversations or activities when I felt I could.

Having also been in the situation from the other side, listening and giving time and space did help.

One more thing, you have to take care of your own well being as well - you are doing the right thing, by being there, it is not an easy road - but believe me, you are making a difference.

9

We can give suggestions, but the only person who knows how your colleague wants to be treated is your colleague. I would suggest discussing it with them directly. Maybe something like this:

I didn't realize until now how much I talk about work. I don't want to make you uncomfortable by bringing it up, so if I do, feel free to stop me or change the subject.

  • 2
    +1 for this. Asking the person is the best way out, so they don't feel like you're walking on eggshells around them, and you don't feel that way as well. – Suresh Oct 16 '13 at 20:45

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