How do you sustain a community of volunteers? “Burnout” has been the subject of recent attention in widely-shared articles such as How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. But what can we do as individuals and members of a volunteer-based community to prevent - and mitigate the effects of - burnout? Stuart Geiger, staff ethnographer at the UC Berkeley Institute for Data Science, and Dorothy Howard, PhD student at the UC San Diego Department of Communication, are studying burnout in the context of the visible/invisible work of open-source software sustainability and maintenance, as part of a research project funded by the Sloan and Ford Foundations. They recently led a very popular Carpentries community discussion, using their preliminary research findings as a starting point for further discussion about burnout in the Carpentries context. The conversation was broadly applicable - and pertained to volunteer work, day jobs, and hobbies, all in pursuit of that lofty goal of “work-life balance.”
What is Burnout?
Both the difficulty and the power in talking about burnout, Howard says, is that it’s a word that means different things to different people. It’s “a squishy concept” that can refer to, among other things, exhaustion, emotional depletion, overwork, loss of passion or motivation in a project, frustration, and anxiety. Such a broad definition can let us talk about many related topics that contribute to these feelings: mental health, diversity and inclusion, team structures and organisations, and resources and funding. The World Health Organisation included “Burnout” in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a ‘syndrome’ tied to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” But burnout is also a community issue, and doesn’t just concern individual responsibility to manage stress - but also emerges from factors of group dynamics, systems, and concerns the availability of support and resources for community-member well-being.
What Factors Contribute to Burnout?
Burnout often arises via a combination of factors and pressures on individuals, with Geiger and Howard emphasising there is no one-size-fits-all cause or solution. They noted that most of the existing research of burnout was done about employees in workplaces, like hospitals. However, burnout is also a major issue in communities that are heavily volunteer-based, where it can manifest quite differently. In project-based communities, burnout can be a byproduct of projects scaling up, especially during early periods of rapid development and growth. Even in larger communities, new initiatives sometimes receive more support than the maintenance of established projects, leaving those involved susceptible to burnout. Ultimately, burnout appears to arise in communities from under-resourcing of people involved in community projects.
While burnout can happen to anyone, they noted how these pressures can be even greater for people from underrepresented backgrounds, who often have to address power differentials as well as micro-aggressions and hostile structures. Individuals may feel a social or professional cost to being open to sharing and driving the conversation, even as it directly affects them. Sarah Ahmed and bell hooks have both referenced how diversity and inclusion efforts are spearheaded by those most deeply affected (e.g. victims of harassment lead efforts to stop harassment). In addition, researchers have shown how free or flexible time is not equitably distributed in society, e.g. Bianchi and Milkie, 2010 – and this is something to be aware of especially in a volunteer organisation, when your organisation can run the risk of not being representative of the community it aims to serve.
How Can We Prevent Burnout in Communities?
In thinking about burnout, Geiger notes that burnout is a complex, systemic issue that will always be a factor in any group. The combination of factors causing a person to feel overwhelmed can include responsibilities outside the organisation (as people usually belong to multiple communities) and personal issues beyond the scope of any organisation. We can create community cultures that reduce its incidence and impact, allowing individuals to recognise and recover when burnout affects them.
What do these cultures look like? One recommendation they made involves recognising individual workloads and a healthy respect for breaks and vacations. The former is especially challenging when it intersects with invisible labor, especially the kind of administrative labor that is designed to be invisible when done well. Howard noted that invisible labor is again often performed by those in underrepresented groups, which can affect their advancement within the organisation when their efforts go unrecognised. Leaders can prepare to understand the workloads of those performing any kind of labor by consulting with others who have done this labor in previous roles. One aspect of their research involves paid roles; it is also important that leaders consider roles with a serious commitment should be paid positions – they should consider the individual’s income, resources, and ability to sustain themselves. If your organisation can’t afford to pay for these roles, perhaps it is worth considering whether the role should exist.
Geiger and Howard emphasised how one of the most important features in a community is that individuals feel that it is acceptable to scale back efforts, take a break, or even a vacation. Breaks are an important factor in both preventing burnout and recovering from it, but not all organisations have normalised the concept. Poor redundancy of roles and cultural attitudes towards taking time off can make individuals reluctant to take a break, especially if they know that the work will simply accumulate in their absence. However, they also discussed how taking breaks can also be a privilege, especially in who feels comfortable asking for one, so it is important to normalise the concept of “time away” at an organisation-wide level. Many volunteer positions don’t have fixed end dates, which can make it difficult for individuals to step away. Some communities are replacing these with fixed term or re-upping on an annual basis to develop more resilient communities, which they see as a helpful constraint. However, it’s important that leaders remain open to scaling back projects as well, if too many feel they have burned out.
They also identified organisational ambiguity as a common factor in burnout – especially in the lack of boundaries for responsibilities and policies for mitigating undesirable aspects of community culture. Clear reporting structures for diversity and inclusion issues as well as harassment can make it easier for people to seek help without additional burden caused by the process of reporting something wrong. It’s important that the people addressing these issues be well-trained; the factors that make a community unwelcoming can lie outside the mandate of the Code of Conduct.
Finally, communities can prevent burnout by being welcoming spaces where people are comfortable being vulnerable and sharing their experience in everyday conversations. Open source is more than technical work; it is also nourishing community and friendships, says Howard. It is important to prioritise care for one another and not just production. Communities should aim to normalise discussions about workloads and making space for people to express when things aren’t sustainable and make adjustments. This can simply involve adding a few minutes of discussion to the agenda of a regular meeting where team members can check in with one another.
We may not be able to fully prevent burnout, but thanks to this community discussion, we have the tools to recognise it and can take steps towards building more resilient communities. Thank you to Dorothy and Stuart for sharing their research, to Kari L. Jordan for facilitating, and to all the participants for probing questions and a lively discussion.