Linus Torvalds and Others on Community Burnout: Page 3

Open source developers talk about the stress of coding in the Linux world.
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Not being single is one of the surest safeguards against burnout for Bacon, but he observes that even singles can take an evening to get away from the community and enjoy the company of friends. He suggests, too, developing other interests (for Bacon, one such interest is playing music with his band Severed Fifth), regular exercise, and a healthier, low calorie diet.

Part of that diet, he suggests, is a reduced level of caffeine, which many members of the community are literally addicted to; Bacon himself describes withdrawal from his six cans of Coke a night, with all the vomiting and shaking it involved as "one of the most wretched experiences of my life" and lists limiting caffeine among the changes he made in his life to reduce the chances of burnout.

But burnout can also be controlled on a community level by creating a culture in which people believe, in Graner's words, that "If you're not operating at one hundred percent, then you're letting the team down,” and that regular breaks from work are encouraged.

Graner further suggests that free software work, "needs to be a team effort so no one person is responsible for it all." Based on her experience in the army, she advocates everyone in a project learning each other's job. Such rotation has the advantage of reducing the tendency for anyone to think of themselves as indispensable, and provides variety that can help to lessen any feeling of burnout. It also means that, should anyone burn out, other project members can take over their responsibilities with a minimum of adjustment.

Another suggestion that Graner makes is that project roles be clearly defined -- something that rarely happens in a distributed project staffed partly by volunteers. That way, people might be less apt to take on new responsibilities.

To these suggestions, Aurora adds that burnout can also be alleviated by "personal expressions of support from multiple people -- sending that email that says 'I think you're doing a really great job and you're right' makes a big difference." In fact, Aurora explains that "any form of validation" can help:

"It seem trivial, but part of any form of burnout is feeling that what you're doing is trivial and not appreciated. I think that the Internet is good at sending the feedback that what you're doing isn't appreciated. Apparently, bad people enjoy sending flames more than nice people enjoy sending thank-yous, and the removal of human faces and voice tones mean that misunderstandings are common."

Aurora cites her own experience of having her work developing anti-harassment policies for conferences, undertaken at a time of near-burnout being met with so many encouraging emails that she could "almost cry with happiness." The encouragement was a much-need validation at a crucial time.

All these responses to burnout can be enhanced by community leaders. Bacon suggests that a manager with "a day to day sense of engagement with [their] community" is in a better position to notice signs of burnout than anyone.

Bacon suggests a frank but supportive talk about burnout, and whether it requires a leave of absence or a reduction in responsibilities. This talk should be in person if possible, by phone if not, and never via email or chat, whose lack of nonverbal cues can create misunderstandings, especially to someone who is already feeling inadequate about their work. In this talk, the community leader should make clear that they are not reprimanding, but giving feedback and suggestions that are in everybody's best interest.

If necessary, the perception of the talk can be softened by encouraging the person with whom they are talking to perform the same kind of intervention if the community leader ever shows signs of burnout.

Staging a Comeback

Just as burnout has no single cause, so no single remedy can prevent or cure it. That means that whether victims of burnout can overcome their problems or will simply disappear from the community is hard to predict. The prognosis is especially hard because the community is just starting to discuss burnout and how to prevent it. Nor should anyone expect a quick recovery.

Recalling her own burnout, Graner says, "The burnout didn't happen overnight, and neither will the comeback. There were times when I thought that if I didn't come back and do all the same things that I had been doing, I would have failed. But nobody thought that except me. That was me blaming me. I had to tell myself, 'No, you're not failing. You're being responsible now.'"

The good news is that those who return from burnout frequently have a greater awareness of what went wrong and how to prevent burnout form happening again. "Once you have fully burned out, you can see when it's coming back," Graner says. Such awareness, more than anything else, may be ultimately the strongest single weapon against burnout as increasing numbers of people return to put what they have learned from their experience to practical use.

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Tags: Linux, FOSS, Torvalds, open source apps

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