Preventing and dealing with BURNOUT!!!

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Randy Fay is doing a session at DrupalCon on Burnout:

We have an incredible group of people who invest deeply in our common project. Some significant portion of this group is near burnout at any given time, and we've lost important contributors, some famously, as a result of this.

The more general problem is: How can we help our contributors to manage their work so they don't get so close to burnout? How can we help people find (or regain) balance while dealing with the technical and social problems of contributing to our great project?

Proposed solution:
- Begin a concentrated initiative to grow and keep our contributors, and to keep them happy.
- Make this a goal a key project responsibility.

He just posted a blog post, on defining burnout and signs of it, this week as well.


My Thoughts...


Burnout among community leaders is real and damaging, not just to those who are burnt out, but the greater community who rely on these people. I have seen friends burn out, and I have been teetering on the brink of full on burnout for a while. Now I'm going to be blatantly honest about why I think it happens and what we could do about it. Please take my complaints as fodder for improving, and not slights on the community!


I think that personally, and as Co-lead of Docs, my increasing burnout can be attributed to a few factors:

  1. Work. Of course, I have my non-volunteer work to do as well, and that takes precedence over my volunteer position. Work has been really busy for the last year, and that's taken away a lot of the time and energy I was previously dedicating to Docs and core.
  2. Life. General stuff going on in life has also distracted me from working on Docs. It's a fact of life that personal factors will come into play, good or bad. Last year when I was sick a lot, I actually had more time at home on my own to be online.
  3. Health. I have chronic health problems and my energy levels fluctuate wildly from week to week. Some weeks I can keep up, others I can't. But the issue queue doesn't care about my health!
  4. Lack of community support. Let's face it, docs can be the ugly duckling of development work. Lots of people write code and don't put docs online for it, or update code and don't update docs. There are a TON of docs. There are a TON of redundant docs. There are a TON of missing docs. It's a real beast, and the amount of material to write, format, and maintain is hugely disproportionate to the amount of time the community puts into docs. Which brings me to...
  5. Lack of resources. There are not many people who write and maintain the docs, and this group is often transient, moving onto development, or working in short bursts. That is not helpful in keeping up on the amount of work to be done. This could be a fulltime paid job, and there is virtually no funding for docs. Managing people is a big job, I think I actually got way more done for docs before becoming Co-lead as none of my time goes to writing docs now, it all goes to managing the issue queue and responding to questions/requests, leaving no time to do more overarching tasks.
  6. It's often a thankless job. Sure other avid contributors are often extremely thankful for the work the Docs Team does. But sometimes I feel like the project's documentation is taken for granted, and there is a tone of entitlement to good documentation (contrib maintainers surely see this as well). Issues in the queue complaining about the state of the docs or demanding documentation on a particular topic are disheartening - I see the same thing in the queues for popular contrib projects. Maintaining the docs is like treading quicksand, and it's a losing battle with the current resources.
  7. Expectations. I can't even imagine doing the job of Docs Lead on my own! OMG. I have no idea how Addi survived it as long as she did. This position is not realistic! Even with Jennifer managing docs infra and API docs, and me just managing the online docs, it's a hefty job. It's not enough. We have a few a few topic coordinators listed, but we really need more, as well as team members who can help with docs for the ever growing library of contrib, and help maintain the docs queues. Additionally, this is an under-resourced volunteer position and people need to adjust their expectations accordingly. For me, the expectation that I will attend a DrupalCon, and submit sessions, as well as lead the docs sprint is even a large one. My health doesn't often allow me to even attend full days of the conference, nevermind those added responsibilities. 
  8. Give some, want more. It seems when someone volunteers to give some of their time and energy to the community, there is always a want for more. I understand that it's a compliment that the community thinks a volunteer does good work. But it's important not to overburden people who already have huge responsibilities. I've been learning the hard way to say no more, but as much as I appreciate being given additional opportunities, don't care for any kind of "oh, you're missing out" attitude when I turn down opportunities that would take up even more of my time/energy/finances.

Maybe I'm not cut out for this! But maybe "this" just needs to change for all leaders in the community...  Enough about what is going wrong, what can be done to improve?!


  1. More, smaller leadership positions. The community and amount of docs and code we maintain is constantly growing. Co-leads and more coordinators are essential for the continued health and sanity of our contributors. Topic coordinators in docs, and things like the Views bug squad are good starts, but we need more people helping, and we need to work on enabling them to be more self sufficient so they're not always waiting on feedback. (If you want to be a topic coordinator for docs, let me know! More are listed on g.d.o.)
  2. Respect the time of community leaders. If someone doesn't respond immediately, don't get angry. If a leader needs to take a break, for instance going on hiatus for a couple months, respect that. We are doing our best. That said...
  3. We need to accommodate time off! Leads shouldn't have to be on duty 365 days a year. Every person in a leadership position that is fairly critical should have either a co-lead and/or an understudy. Someone who can help out and when needed take over for a while. Just the existence of this structure would take a lot of pressure of leaders to not have to be available all the time.
  4. More people need to help. I know, this is an ongoing issue for open source projects. But we need to get more Drupal users and community members to participate, especially in some of the less popular tasks. They still need to be done! Maybe we need a marketing campaign of some sort? Some people, like me, even enjoy these kinds of tasks, so we should also...
  5. Revere "gruntwork"! Things like support and documentation aren't just gruntwork - they are really important tasks for all levels of community members. They shouldn't just be looked at as a stepping stone to development work. Support and Docs Team members should be nurtured just like developers are, and given the same respect so that they aren't perceived as lesser positions in the community. Not saying everyone has this attitude, but it's important, especially as the community grows to recognize these tasks as critical parts of the ecosystem.
  6. Funding for docs? I don't know if it's realistic to get funding for documentation work. It sounds like it'd be possible for a huge infra project, but isn't so much for day to day needs. Not sure how to get more help with our infra from the larger community so that we can help our processes become more efficient.
  7. Reset expectations. When interacting with anyone in a major leadership position, remember how much we are responsible for. Try not to be impatient with us, or demanding of our time. Don't put pressure on leaders to contribute more. We're volunteering to help, but that doesn't mean we are solely responsible. Which reminds me, we need to find a way to...
  8. Make contributors more self-sufficient. Documenting how to help doesn't seem to be enough. I would love to see a more structured mentorship system in place that would take some of the weight off of the shoulders of people already in leadership positions. There are many community members who could answer simple questions and help onboard new contributors. And yet it always tends to be the already overburdened leaders who take this on.
  9. Rethink things. Finally, I think that we could really rethink some of the more burdensome parts of the community task list. For instance the documentation. Should Docs Team really be responsible for this massive amount of community contributed docs? Should we just manage some "official" core docs and end user tutorials? Maybe there are other approaches that would work better with the growing community. Open to suggestions!


Preventing Volunteer Burnout

And now, some tips from our dear friend, the internet, for preventing volunteer burnout:

In my experience, burnout can happen for a number of reasons: the work I’m doing isn’t challenging, the work I’m doing has little meaning, I’m not learning anything new, I’m doing something I’m not passionate about, or the workload I’m shouldering is overwhelming. - Tom Johnson, 'Avoiding Burnout as a Technical Writer'

Moderation is key...aying no is difficult, especially if you think your answer is going to disappoint someone. But it's necessary since spreading yourself too thin can be a bad thing for you and the recipient(s) of your volunteer efforts. It's best to be sensible about your time so that you're able to maintain the energy and desire to honor the commitments you make. - John Barrymore, 'How Volunteer Burnout Works'

As the saying goes, "if you want something done, ask a busy person." Canada. Interestingly, a small minority of volunteers accounted for the bulk of the hours. The top 25% of volunteers accounted for 78% of total hours of volunteer support... If they do not get the balance they will get burnt out...The problem is that we do not notice the burnout coming until it is too late and what you are left with is either a very unhappy volunteer or a great volunteer who quits. 

- Connect to purpose
- Create an achievable position description
- Give volunteers holidays
- Set guidelines at the start
- Create an environment that is welcoming
- Thank volunteers

Lori Gotlieb, 'The road to volunteer burnout: How to avoid it and how to manage it' 

Slideshare, takes a while to load - the slides are pretty self-explanatory...

- Meredith Kennedy 'Preventing and Addressing Volunteer Burnout'

In my volunteer management work, I see and hear about volunteer burnout. Volunteer 'burnout' was the term coined years ago to mean asking those faithful volunteers to do more and more to the extent that they actually burned out, left the organization, and likely stopped volunteering altogether. This was likely the beginning of serious recruitment issues: instead of recruiting new volunteers, those who could be depended on were asked for more 'time'.

"Volunteers who are committed continue to be asked to give more time. We are also expected to give more money to the causes we volunteer for. We are also expected to sell more, promote more, and show up at fundraisers." - Donna Lockhart, 'Volunteer Fatigue: What impact on the future of volunteerism?' 

Finally, a great post from my favourite Project Management author, Michael Lopp, on bordom and burnout (not directly related to volunteering): 'Bored People Quit'. I think this is also important because doing repetitive tasks and being constantly overburdened can also be boring - it strips away the creativity that keeps people engaged. We need to try and make sure that smart, engaged contributors have that creative time so they don't get bored!


I think that one of the things that happens is we all care enormously about the project, and we want things to happen, and we see a lack of volunteers or other contributors and so we take things on ourselves with the belief that 'someone has to'. This is a dangerous spiral to get into, I've been there many times. It has several unintended consequences. For instance, if you are doing everything, then newcomers don't realize how much work is available. It also prevents you from empowering other people and it starts leading to the belief that nobody but you can do anything, which is terrible because leaders HAVE to be able to let go and delegate. Additionally, if something sits around unattended for a while, someone will very often step up and grab it, whereas if you are giving that task maybe 20% of the attention it deserves, it won't be as obvious that help is so desperately needed.

Volunteers have to constantly be prioritizing their tasks and weighing them against goals, and if something doesn't fit they just have to let go. Find someone else to take that stuff on, keep asking for people who might want it, but dont just do it because nobody else will. Constant and dilligent protection of your personal time, and honest assessment of your ability / desire to provide of yourself are the best defenses against burnout there are. And guess what? It's completely under your control. People can ask of your time all they want, but it is completely up to you whether or not you answer their call. If those people continue to pressure you, then there's a different problem than burnout to be dealt with.

This is such a valuable perspective... it occurs to me right now that what might also be really valuable is just some space (an IRC channel?) for very involved contributors to get support from each other - something a bit more private... Especially for "newer" contributors such as myself (I think a couple years of involvement in core is still new compared to 5+ years) the experience and lessons of more longtime contributors could be really valuable.

But I think what you say about how much some (myself included) *choose* to invest is to an extent true. And also, I couldn't agree more that more delegating is needed in docs and elsewhere - I actually find this strange effect that when there is someone in a "leadership" position, it actually makes others less likely to take ownership/initiative over work themselves. I think some mentoring and delegation could help break that pattern.

The protection of personal time and assessment of ability/desire to continue to "volunteer" is also really important - something I personally need to work on some more... it can be a scary question once you've given so much already, but surely having asked this earlier could have prevented previous meltdowns/burnouts in the community...

Lots to think about - thanks for the great thoughts!

I've seen it as a pattern in volunteer efforts that you usually have 1-3 people doing 90% of the work on any given project. That's okay because volunteers typically don't have time for management in the traditional sense of handing out tasks.

In the Drupal community, I often see successful collaboration and projects being "community maintained" a result of a couple people kicking ass for several months on something, and then moving on and letting it stagnate. If it is useful, others come along and become that new group. They inject fresh ideas, enthusiasm and probably client paid hours.

For me, letting go has been extremely important in terms of seeing my projects flourish. We often demonize the "contrib and run" thing, but the reality is that we all have jobs, families, etc and it is the rule, not the exception. Some people want to dedicate all their free time to a popular module. And good for them, but we shouldn't base our organization structure around that lifestyle because it doesn't scale well.

Would be interesting to know, which project-wide decisions would be made about this problem in London. And I hope there will be some decisions, at least in the past Drupal community showed us it can handle growth crisis. Hope it'll not hurt us so much this time too, though we can clearly see there are some problems with key contributors. For example, chx thoughts about forking Drupal can be caused with the same problem, and definitely we need a complex solution here.

And as for factor 6 - I should really thank you for your hard work over documentation, Ariane!

Thanks ;) And indeed, it's good timing that we can have some conversations about this in person at the conference. I'm sure there are ways to adapt, but I think we've all been too busy to really think about them for the last while working on shipping Drupal 7! Good opportunity to take a step back and see where we need to make changes.

The burn out posts (by all) have been very informative.

Part of the problem with delegation in these discussions is that In the business world it's far easier to delegate and therefore be a good leader than it is in the volunteer world. In an office, there are subordinates to delagate to. Often in the volunteer world there isn't any one to delegate to and this aids in the vicious spiral. This I think is especially true in the docs/support venues. Where more often than not those who got involved in those area got involved because no one else typically wants to.

I think a big part of the problem is that we are getting trapped by the accelerating growth pace of Drupal. That in combination that a lot of tools and other community features have not been able to keep up with the needs such growth creates.

Just take the recently added ability to edit the issue summaries. I have noticed that users are now increasingly using it and it is not only making things so much better, but also saves a lot of valuable time and resources. As everyone gets more used to it, it will only make things better.

That's just one example on how a quite small change to a tool can have a big impact. For me, working with issues where this is now used have without a doubt made it much more enjoyable.

Those who has been part of the community for much longer than me (just 3 years soon) have also got used to how things works. Us humans are often automatically against change even before we know what the change will mean. Just the though that something has change that we have used for years often get us thinking "oh no, not more change".

Also, being used to the workarounds means it is harder to see how it can be made better. Except for those obvious things such as the subscribe/+1 issue of course. Someone new doesn't have the same subconsciousness to automatically apply the workarounds and can/will point out where things can be improved.

A lot of initiatives are in progress of improving things, I just hope that we will soon see more being implemented as well. Start with the easy fixes or the biggest annoyances and we will see a lot of users smile more while seeing how much they improve things. The biggest smile will most certainly come when subscribe/+1 is an historic workaround.

From my experience with previous volunteer project I was involved in, I can say that I really understand you. Faced this problem myself many times. You get too excited and too involved, want to do more and better for the project. And there are too few people to help, so you do more and more and more. Sad truth is that the amount of work is never ending. As you try to do things better and faster, the number of things to do does not decrease. Actually the opposite, the more you do, the more you get on your table. And even if you will stop sleeping or do anything else except this project - you still will have stuff to do :) So the best way for not to burn out is self-control. Understand that you cannot possibly do everything and so start doing as much as you can do while still enjoying it and while it does not hurt other parts of your life - job, personal life etc.

Involving new people is most important to get some tasks off long-time and tired contributors. But it seems to me that it is often not so easy for new people to get involved in Drupal. For many different reasons. I really hope that Prairie initiative will remove at least some of them once it will get into action.

Anyways, thank you for all the work you do for Drupal and I must say that you are one of the most welcoming and supportive to newcomers people out there (along with Angie, yoroy and couple of others) .

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