This holiday season, I wanted to remind people again about the importance of rest, reflection, and taking care of oneself and those that are important to you. In this article, I talk about one of the common consequences of not doing those things: burnout. Then I tell you how to counteract it and, more importantly, help to prevent it from becoming an issue in the first place.
I first encountered work-related burnout while working as a lifeguard at a waterpark in my late teens. For being a teenager making the tiniest fraction above minimum wage, I had a relatively skilled and somewhat high-stress job. At a minimum, I had to be trained and certified in CPR, First Aid, and a specialized waterpark Life Saving course. Many of my coworkers and I opted for advanced training besides. We had twice monthly training sessions where we were drilled and tested on all of the above and park procedures. I was also subject to random real-world fake scenarios where if I didn’t perform adequately I would lose my job. There were always a few every season who did.
In addition to all of the above, the job required constant attentiveness. We were expected to be able to scan our assigned area for safety hazards or anyone in trouble every ten seconds and be able to reach anyone to render assistance within an additional ten seconds. This is because research shows that someone who is beginning to drown has a significantly higher chance of survival if they are assisted within the first thirty seconds.
Of course, everyone thinks that being a lifeguard is about either hanging around with scantily-clad beautiful people or being a tin-pot dictator of a tiny, meaningless fiefdom. However, the reality is quite different. Being a lifeguard at a waterpark meant that, while there was the occasional regular customer the vast majority of people I encountered I would never see again. So there was lots of responsibility, comparatively little respect or power, and plenty of rebellious types looking to give any authority figure the proverbial finger.
Interestingly enough, these circumstances are very similar to what is experienced by many community managers, open source maintainers, and forum administrators. Sustained over a long enough time, this can wear down even the most optimistic and charitable person, especially if they’re not aware of how all of this can impact them.
What is it?
There’s a mounting body of evidence that indicates that burnout is a form of clinical depression. Specifically, it is often a consequence of an imbalance between the demands on an individual and the resources, power, and ability the individual has at their disposal to handle those demands. For example, the responsibility to keep everyone safe and happy, in the face of a deluge of uncaring and innumerable people, and the fact of having little to no power to effect long-term, lasting change can result in:
- Lack of desire or inability to continue working
What to do about it?
There are two strategies for handling burnout: coping with it and preventing it. My original “Rest and reflection” article has some examples of techniques I use to cope with burnout when I see it rear its ugly head in myself. But this year I would like to focus on prevention. What can we do to prevent this imbalance from occurring in our projects, communities, and organizational structures?
Prevention of burnout isn’t something that can happen on an individual level. Prevention requires real change in the organization or power structures that it consists of. This is really, really important: burnout isn’t an individual moral failing or indication that someone just needs to “suck it up”. Burnout is a symptom that indicates an organization or its policies and procedures are not designed in a way that are healthy and sustainable for its members. What needs to happen is that the people doing the work need to have the tools, the power, or the ability to influence the system to make changes to reduce that stress.
An example change that comes to mind is the FAQ. The FAQ, or Frequently Asked Questions document, was a reaction that arose in early message boards and forums to people coming along and asking the same questions over and over, ad nauseam. Collecting these frequently asked questions and their definitive answers into a document made answering those questions easier, and the practice turned into a cultural norm in most communities to “read the FAQ first”. This reduces stress for those maintaining the community and makes things more engaging for the more active members of the community by helping them find the “interesting topics” - in other words, the ones they haven’t seen yet - faster.
But figuring out these kinds of changes is often only possible for those who haven’t already burnt out. Additionally, making this kind of change is only available to people with the power to change the policies or procedures of their community or work environment. So it is very important to keep a look out for the signs of burnout both in yourself and the others who are involved in your projects or communities with you so that you can make changes as problems occur.
Burnout is a very real problem in many communities, organizations, and work environments. It is caused, in general, by an excess of responsibility without the requisite power or authority to balance it out. It isn’t something that one can “just deal with” or “get over”. It requires changes to be made or it will eventually wear good people down. The real way to eliminate burnout is to create empathy for yourself and others, share the burden, and make time to rest, recuperate, and reflect on things.
What experiences have you had with burnout? Have you been involved in or architected a change that helped you or your community with problems like these? Let us know in the comments below!
I wanted also to give a hearty “thank you” to all of you for reading “Studies in Community” over the past year and more. I really appreciate the support I’ve been given and the kind words that people have shared. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and have a happy and prosperous New Year!