burnout volunteers

On Burnout

There’s a very popular topic making its rounds lately in open source communities. The concept of burnout. This idea can be roughly summed up as an individual spending too much of their time contributing voluntarily to a community and quickly becoming tired and leaving the community. Unfortunately this does happen and is a very real problem in volunteer-driven communities. If you’re interested in reading more on this then I suggest this post which covers the topic very well. But I want to write briefly on a different aspect. I want to talk about an aspect which might not be as quickly considered and times when there may be a mislabelling of a situation. Let’s talk about what is not burnout.

Burnout is not a catch-all excuse

Unfortunately, burnout is not always the reason for a volunteer stepping away or shifting focus. Sometimes people tend to use burnout as an excuse for more serious problem. What I mean when I say more serious problem? Simple, sometimes when people are leaving a community they are leaving for other reasons besides being burnt out. Maybe they have an interest in something different, maybe they want to focus their time more efficiently, or maybe there is a deeper problem within the community which is keeping them contributing as they would like to. All of these are examples where burnout is not really the cause for change but something else, something deeper, is the real problem and should be uncovered.

The danger of mislabeling burnout

The community suffers when someone mislabels an individual leaving a community as the result of burnout if in fact it’s another reason. By failing to address the real reason for individuals leaving the community there is no opportunity for change. Without change the problem will repeat itself with new volunteers for new contributors. The vicious cycle continues. This is obviously extremely dangerous to a community. If we are unable to correctly diagnose problems within the community and instead resort to mislabeling them as burnout, or the fault of the volunteer rather than the community, the health of the community will be affected.

People make up a community and if those people aren’t perfect, neither are their communities.

Prevent mislabeling

If we want to ensure that we are not mislabeling problems within the community then we need to be very careful when we use the term burnout. So how do we prevent mislabeling a problem? By listening. If we listen to those individuals leaving a community, if we ask them for the reasons why they’re leaving, and if we hear their answer then we can ensure that we label the problem correctly. It may very well be that an individual is leaving because they are truly burnt out. If that is the case then following some of the advice given in the other blog posts such as the one I mentioned earlier is very applicable. However if we listen to their replies and we can see they are not burnt out but instead there are other issues, problems, or concerns that these need to be addressed and labeled correctly.

When a community is strong enough to diagnose problems, to label them correctly, and take action as a result that community will thrive. The community which listens will thrive. Yes, burnout is a very real issue particularly in open source or volunteer communities. But let’s be careful not to label every individual which leaves the community as being burnt out.