How to recognise, prevent, and treat burnout

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.


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.


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.


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

  • People must never work alone on projects. This is probably the main factor: the concentration of responsibility on one person who is naive enough to not set their own limits. At the FFII we insist that a workgroup start with three or more people.
  • People need day jobs. This is hard but necessary. Getting money from somewhere else makes it much easier to sustain a sacrificial project.
  • Set limits. Don't do a tough project for more than a year or two years. Find someone else to take over before it's too late for you.
  • Education. When we explain to people what burnout is, they recognise it faster and can take action before it happens. Action means telling people, "I need help and/or financial support".
  • Help improve the organisation. Using inefficient tools makes the cost of a project higher. Making yourself irreplacable almost guarantees burnout. Ensure the organisation has a stable, documented framework so people can switch in and out of projects easier.


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.


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