From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly (http://www.artofcommunityonline.org) by Jono Bacon, reproduced with permission.
Unfortunately, there is one other element in life that very specifically falls into the “not fun” category: burnout.
Although I have always dreamed that when someone shouts, “Is there a doctor on the plane?” I can step up to the plate, unfortunately I am not a doctor, and you should remember this through this entire section. My carefully scrawled and spellchecked words are no replacement for the opinion of a medical professional. If you are worried about burnout, go and see the doc and get some advice.
Burnout is a problem that affects all walks of life, all people, and all professions. As such, it is a problem that affects all communities, and yours is no different. Burnout refers to long-term exhaustion that typically causes lack of interest and focus. Unfortunately it can be devilishly difficult to spot and prevent in your community.
Burnout appears as a series of often subtle changes in personality, perspective, values, and behavior in the sufferer. As these changes progress, it can be difficult to identify that members are suffering from burnout. Unfortunately, burnout often is instead misdiagnosed as irrationality, short temperament, unusual and strange behavior, lack of tolerance, or for the ladies out there, accusations of “the wrong time of the month.”
While it is difficult to identify categorically, fortunately there is some compelling research that was first published in the June/July 2006 issue of Scientific American in an article called “Burned Out.” It presented the findings of two psychologists, Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, and their Burnout Cycle. The cycle is comprised of 12 phases that outline the progressively serious steps that are part of burnout.
These steps don’t necessarily happen in a sequential order (it can vary from person to person), and some sufferers will skip some of the steps whereas some will dwell longer on them. These steps offer an interesting list of warning signs for potential burnout victims. Let’s take a look at them:
1. A compulsion to prove oneself:
Often burnout is triggered by an obsessive commitment to prove yourself. This desire is founded in demonstrating to your colleagues and particularly yourself that you can knock the ball out of the park.
2. Working harder:
To knock the aforementioned ball out of the aforementioned park, hard work is needed. This is manifested in long days, longer nights, and an inability to switch off results.
3. Neglecting one’s own needs:
In this stage, simple pleasures such as sleeping, eating, socializing with friends, and watching Seinfeld are seen as just that: pleasures, and as such a distraction from work.
4. Displacement of conflicts:
In this stage, you don’t really understand the problems that you have. If they lead to discomfort or even panic, the victim dismisses the impressions because they feel threatening.
5. Revision of values:
In this phase, the obsession and focus of work means that traditional values such as friends or hobbies are dismissed, rejected, and pushed aside. Here your only evaluation of success is being good at your job.
6. Denial of emerging problems:
In this phase, cynicism, intolerance, and aggression raise their ugly heads. Colleagues are dismissed as idiots. Your increasing problems are blamed on lack of time, incompetent coworkers, and unfair workloads.
You reduce your social interaction and contacts to a minimum and dial up your work to 11. You may start relieving the stress by boozing more often during the week or possibly even resorting to drugs. Whatever your choice of substance, you appear to be indulging in it a little more than usual—and dangerously so.
8. Obvious behavioral changes:
Your strange and erratic behavior is obvious to your friends, family, and colleagues. You are not yourself, and your nearest and dearest can see it a mile off.
At this point you feel like you offer no value to the world, and lack confidence in what you feel you could once do. Your life feels like one long series of mechanical and emotionless functions.
10. Inner emptiness:
You feel an expressed sense of emptiness. You resort more to booze or drugs or possibly find relief in overeating, strange and exaggerated sexual behavior, or other activities.
Here you feel hopeless, lost, and exhausted, and see little in the way of rays of light for the future.
12. Burnout syndrome:
At this, the most serious level, you feel suicidal and desperate for a way out. You are on the verge of mental and physical collapse and need medical support and attention.
Wow, by the end of reading that lot you may want to go and pet a small animal, watch The Sound of Music, or sniff a rose. It is pretty frightening stuff, and unfortunately it appears to be prevalent.
Some of you will have read the list and identified with many of these steps, whereas some of you will be identifying others who may have exhibited some of the steps. I have met and known people who have exhibited almost all the behaviors described in these steps, and when serious burnout takes its grip, it can destroy families, careers, and many other aspects of life.
With the risks evident in the list of symptoms, you are sure to be wondering what is the best approach to manage this risk. Is there a way to identify and react to burnout in your community?
This is something I have participated in during various discussion sessions at different conferences. 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 got your back, dude.
Although it may seem outrageously simple, the easiest and most applicable method is to first develop a nose for symptoms and to then 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, reread, 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 community.
Specifically look for and be conscious of changes in behavior. If someone just “doesn’t seem herself,” she may be getting bitten by burnout. It is these changes in behavior that are the typical signs. If you have a suspicion that someone is getting burned out, just strike up a personal conversation and be entirely frank. Tell the person you noticed she has been a little different recently and that you are concerned. Ask her if she is OK, and ask if there is anything you can help with. In many cases the person will tell you what is on her mind, what is stressing her out, and any problems she appears to be having.
With overwork as a common cause of burnout, you should also ask how she is coping with her workload and if there is anything you can do to ease it. This offer of help in itself can be a stress reliever—it is a validation that someone is there to help her get through her TODO list.
One of the most effective methods of shackling up burnout is to get away from things and unwind. It is amazing how a small vacation can help someone decompress. This happened to me when I felt I was burning out. I felt like I wasn’t myself and could feel how stressed and anxious I was. To deal with this, I went to Ireland for a long weekend to visit a friend. It is incredible how those few days with a friendly face, getting out in the countryside, having a few drinks, and getting away from a computer helped.
If you suspect you or someone else is burning out, tell him to do the same and get away for a few days. He will almost certainly claim he can’t or doesn’t need to, but stand firm: it is for his own good, and he will thank you for it.
When on the subject of communities and stress, looks can be deceiving. Although most communities are firmly wedged in the volunteer category, that doesn’t mean that their participants don’t develop, feel, and react to stress. The lack of compulsion behind volunteers’ involvement and contribution does not mean that volunteers who feel stress can just go and do something else. People grow attached to communities, their ethos, and their sense of family. The involvement may not be contractually required, but it is often emotionally required inside the mind of the contributor.
At the center of the somewhat unpleasant universe that is burnout is the problem of balance. Although there is little concrete scientific evidence to determine who burnout is more likely to pick on, mere observational evidence suggests that technical folks, musicians, counselors, 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 an online, Internet-based community. 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.com; microblogging with Twitter and identi.ca; 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 is easy to see how this merry band of pixelated distractions can take Ctrl, and it is not entirely unsurprising that someone could 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 energize other attributes of the human condition, such as getting out, playing sports, spending time with friends, romantic embraces, and other fun things that don’t involve staring intently 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 is important to ensure that in the process of doing so they don’t ignore and 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. I know of many 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.
For many this is an agreeable choice that they can step away from when needed. Many people can wake up at 7 a.m., work all day, spend the entire evening in front of the computer in pursuits of their own, head to bed at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., 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, 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 the addicted beast typically means these people are in a state of denial about their condition. Just as with alcohol, cigarettes, or gambling, claims of “I could stop if I wanted to” are often thrown in the general direction of naysayers, but their 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.
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