With the risks evident in the list of symptoms, you are sure to be wondering what the best approach is to manage this risk. Understanding the risks of burnout is not only important to help you recognise the symptoms happening in yourself, but also to see burnout happening in those around you. There is also the wider question of how we prevent burnout happening with the communities that we participate in.
Unfortunately, there is no recipe or secret formula for dealing with burnout in a community. The best solution is to subscribe to one simple philosophy that has helped people deal with complex life changes and decisions for years: I've got your back.
Although it may seem outrageously simple, the easiest and most applicable method is to first develop a nose for symptoms and then to extend a personal hand of friendship to the sufferer. Having that sense of companionship through a tough time can really help with burnout.
To detect the symptoms you should first read, re-read, and then read again the 12 items in the Burnout Cycle. These items provide a core set of knowledge for understanding the nature of burnout. You should then keep a general eye out for these symptoms in your friends, family, and community.
Specifically look for and be conscious of changes in behaviour. If someone just 'doesn't seem themself', they may be getting bitten by burnout. It is these changes in behaviour that are the typical signs. If you suspect that someone is getting burned out, just strike up a personal conversation and be entirely frank.
Tell the person you noticed they have been a little different recently and that you are concerned. Ask if they're OK, and whether there is anything you can help with. In many cases the person will tell you what's on their mind, what is stressing them out, and any problems they appear to be having.
With overwork as a common cause of burnout, you should also ask how they're coping with their workload and if there is anything you can do to ease it. This offer of help can in itself be a stress reliever – it's a validation that someone is there to help the sufferer get through their to-do list.
At the centre of the somewhat unpleasant universe that is burnout is the problem of balance. Although there is little concrete scientific evidence to determine who is likely to be affected by burnout, mere observational evidence suggests that technical folks, musicians, counsellors, authors, and teachers have a higher than normal risk of reserving a place on the dreaded Burnout Cycle.
Balance is a surprisingly complicated goal for many to achieve, particularly if your community is online. Years ago it was easier to get balance: you simply switched your computer off and went and lived the parts of your life that didn't involve a mouse and a keyboard. As the internet has steamed into our lives more and more, the amount of time in our lives that doesn't involve said mouse and keyboard is being reduced.
In addition to the familiar tools of the workplace, such as email, office suites, web browsers and accounting packages, we now have social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace; blogging sites such as Blogger and WordPress; microblogging with Twitter and Identica; and online chat services such as Skype, Google GChat, MSN, Yahoo IM, and AIM.
Let's also not forget the entertainment on the web: countless websites, animations, videos and articles are all there to attract us to the computer. We can then seal the deal with the countless other online facilities such as internet banking, reviews websites, mapping tools, online shopping, games and more.
It's easy to see how this merry band of pixellated distractions can take control, and it's not uncommon for people to spend an entire day and most of an evening in front of a computer. This is itself not exactly healthy: computers are great, but everyone should spend some time away from them to decompress, get some fresh air and energise other attributes of the human condition, such as getting out, playing sports, spending time with friends, romantic embraces, and other things that don't involve staring at a screen.
The problem is that when the rest of your life is wrapped with window borders, you are only ever a click away from either work or other commitments, such as community. While we want to encourage our community members to throw themselves into our goals and enjoy every moment of it, it's important to ensure that in the process of doing so they don't neglect other parts of their lives.
Addiction has affected many online communities: there are contributors and members who spend every conceivable moment of their lives embedded in the community. This can be seen everywhere. We all know people today who appear to be constantly online at all times of the day, always responsive to chat messages and queries and seemingly never away from their screens.
Many people can wake up at 7am, work all day, spend the entire evening in front of the computer in pursuits of their own, head to bed at 1 or 2am and spend a valuable six hours sleeping, only to wake up and repeat. That may be OK because these people can easily go away for a weekend or spend a few evenings doing something else, and go on vacation without getting jittery.
For some, though, even spending one evening – let alone a whole weekend! – away from their familiar screen can seem like too much. In these cases we are seeing strong signs of addiction. You should be very cautious of addiction: it is never healthy in anyone.
Unfortunately, the nature of addiction typically means that these people are in a state of denial about their condition. Just as with alcohol, cigarettes, or gambling, claims that "I could stop if I wanted to" are often thrown in the general direction of naysayers, but this claim is rarely, if ever, tested.
The reason for your caution is that at some point an addicted member will burn out. It may take longer than expected, but when it does, it could have catastrophic results. Keep an eye on your community members and how much they are online: if it feels too much, a quick and sensitive word in their ear can help them get away for a few days.
This has been a slightly different article for Linux Format, but one that we feel is an important topic to share. Burnout can have complex and long-lasting effects on our lives, and just having a basic understanding of the symptoms can be enough to prevent it in yourself and your friends.
The real key to understanding burnout is that rest and diversity in what you do is important to help you enjoy and be successful in your passion. No matter how much you love open source, you have look after yourself first.
First published in Linux Format Issue 137
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