Pieter Hintjens [opinions]
11/22/2006

How to recognise, prevent, and treat burnout

fsmsh.com/1846 [burnout] [projects] [free-software]

Burnout is the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest (depersonalisation or cynicism), usually in the work context.

Any organisation or team that relies on pro-bono efforts from its members runs the risk of burnout. In this article I'll explain what causes burnout, how to recognise it, how to prevent it, and (if it happens) how to treat it.

Disclaimer: I'm not a psychiatrist and this article is based on my own experiences of working in pro-bono contexts, such as free software projects and volunteer organisations.

Causes

In a pro-bono context we're expected to work without economic incentive. That is, we sacrifice family life, professional advancement, free time, and health in order to accomplish some goal we have decided to invest in.

In any project, we need some kind of reward to make it worth continuing each day. In most pro-bono projects the rewards are emotional, not economical. Mostly, we do things because people say, "hey, great!" This is a powerful motivator. It is why I'm writing this blog at 3.50am.

However, we are economic beings, and sooner or later, if a project costs us a great deal and does not bring economic rewards of some kind (money, fame, a new job,...) we start to suffer.

So burnout is when we spend too much time on a particular project, with too little economic reward. Our minds simply get disgusted, and say, "enough is enough!" and refuse to go any further. If we try to force ourselves, we get sick.

People are very good at manipulating each other, and themselves, and this is often part of the process that leads to burnout. We tell ourselves that it's for a good cause, that the other guy is doing ok, so we should be able to as well.

Symptoms

When I got burnt-out on some free software projects, I remember clearly how I felt. I simply stopped working on it, refused to answer any more emails, and told people to forget about it.

You can tell when someone's burned-out. They go offline, and everyone starts saying, "he's acting strange... depressed, or tired..." It can appear to happen suddenly, but the warning signs are usually visible long before.

Diagnosis is simple. Has someone worked a lot on a project that was not paying back in any way? Did he make exceptional sacrifices? Did he lose or abandon his job or studies to do the project? If you're answering "yes", it's burnout.

Prevention

There are some simple rules to reduce the risk burnout to a low level:

Cure

The simple cure to burnout is to get paid for your work. This is hard in volunteer settings but sometimes it's possible. More and more companies are paying developers to work on free software, for example. At the FFII we're building up a core of full-time professionals who can work for years without getting burnt out.


License

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.