Aim: This paper is a report of a study to describe co-workers' perceptions of signs preceding workmates' burnout.
Background: Burnout engenders emotional and economic suffering, both individual and societal. It is therefore important to learn to recognize early signs to prevent burnout and co-workers, who have opportunities to recognize such signs, are valuable resources in this context.
Method: Fifteen interviews were conducted with nursing and medical staff in Sweden who had worked with a person who developed burnout. The interviews took place in 2004 and were analysed using a thematic content analysis. The narratives were obtained when co-workers already knew that their workmates were on sick leave because of burnout or had left their employment after sick leave because of burnout.
Findings: The findings show that co-workers retrospectively recalled a multiplicity of signs. They perceived that the people concerned were struggling to manage alone, showing self-sacrifice, struggling to achieve unattainable goals, becoming distanced and isolated, and showing signs of falling apart.
Conclusions: Some of the signs preceding workmates' burnout may be difficult to interpret as signs of burnout, because they may be regarded as qualities which are to some extent encouraged in the prevailing culture. The findings provide a complex picture of these signs that will hopefully increase our awareness of and ability to recognize such signs to facilitate the possibilities of our helping in time. The sub-themes and themes in the present study may also serve as a basis for supervisors involved in supporting clinical staff.