How to Recognise and Prevent Burnout

pieterhpieterh wrote on 23 Jun 2011 13:53


Any organisation or community 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 for the last 20 years, including free software projects, and NGOs such as the FFII.


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.

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 open source 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…"

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:

  • Never work alone on projects. This is probably the main factor: the concentration of responsibility on one person who does not set their own limits.
  • 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 simplest cure for an ongoing case of burnout is to be paid for your work. This is hard in an open source setting but it's possible. If someone working pro-bono on your project is burnt-out, finding them budget can cure them. If budget is impossible, then the only cure is to stop working on the project.


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