How to recognise, prevent, and treat burnout

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Burnout is the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest (depersonalisation or cynicism), usually in the work context.

Any organisation or team that relies on pro-bono efforts from its members runs the risk of burnout. In this article I'll explain what causes burnout, how to recognise it, how to prevent it, and (if it happens) how to treat it.

Disclaimer: I'm not a psychiatrist and this article is based on my own experiences of working in pro-bono contexts, such as free software projects and volunteer organisations.


In a pro-bono context we're expected to work without economic incentive. That is, we sacrifice family life, professional advancement, free time, and health in order to accomplish some goal we have decided to invest in.

In any project, we need some kind of reward to make it worth continuing each day. In most pro-bono projects the rewards are emotional, not economical. Mostly, we do things because people say, "hey, great!" This is a powerful motivator. It is why I'm writing this blog at 3.50am.

However, we are economic beings, and sooner or later, if a project costs us a great deal and does not bring economic rewards of some kind (money, fame, a new job,...) we start to suffer.

So burnout is when we spend too much time on a particular project, with too little economic reward. Our minds simply get disgusted, and say, "enough is enough!" and refuse to go any further. If we try to force ourselves, we get sick.

People are very good at manipulating each other, and themselves, and this is often part of the process that leads to burnout. We tell ourselves that it's for a good cause, that the other guy is doing ok, so we should be able to as well.


When I got burnt-out on some free software projects, I remember clearly how I felt. I simply stopped working on it, refused to answer any more emails, and told people to forget about it.

You can tell when someone's burned-out. They go offline, and everyone starts saying, "he's acting strange... depressed, or tired..." It can appear to happen suddenly, but the warning signs are usually visible long before.

Diagnosis is simple. Has someone worked a lot on a project that was not paying back in any way? Did he make exceptional sacrifices? Did he lose or abandon his job or studies to do the project? If you're answering "yes", it's burnout.


There are some simple rules to reduce the risk burnout to a low level:

  • People must never work alone on projects. This is probably the main factor: the concentration of responsibility on one person who is naive enough to not set their own limits. At the FFII we insist that a workgroup start with three or more people.
  • People need day jobs. This is hard but necessary. Getting money from somewhere else makes it much easier to sustain a sacrificial project.
  • Set limits. Don't do a tough project for more than a year or two years. Find someone else to take over before it's too late for you.
  • Education. When we explain to people what burnout is, they recognise it faster and can take action before it happens. Action means telling people, "I need help and/or financial support".
  • Help improve the organisation. Using inefficient tools makes the cost of a project higher. Making yourself irreplacable almost guarantees burnout. Ensure the organisation has a stable, documented framework so people can switch in and out of projects easier.


The simple cure to burnout is to get paid for your work. This is hard in volunteer settings but sometimes it's possible. More and more companies are paying developers to work on free software, for example. At the FFII we're building up a core of full-time professionals who can work for years without getting burnt out.



Mauro Bieg's picture

But even if you're payed well, you run the risk of burning-out...

Terry Hancock's picture

I don't think it's necessarily economic payback that makes the difference.

Some of the worst burnout I've ever experienced was from jobs that paid very well but left me feeling spiritually and intellectually void. For example, I couldn't really complain about the pay in telephone tech support (it was the most lucrative option I had at the time).

But, what drove me crazy was spending two hours a day in a car, commuting to and from the job, and then spending eight hours with nothing but people's trivial problems with their ink jet printers in my head. In fact, these things stuck in my head so much, that I would find myself talking about printers after I got home. Which was just too much—something like 10-12 hours a day with my brain ‘stuck in first gear’!

In fact, the pay really contributed to the burnout, because, as a provider for my family, I felt very guilty about leaving a good paycheck behind, even when the job itself is killing me.

I think I lasted about four months in that job. After I quit, I took up two part time jobs doing manual labor, which doesn't fill your head with trivia, so you're free to use it for your own purposes (and I always have something to think about). On the other hand, I didn't keep those jobs that long, either, as I finally got a professional break some months later (ironically, the increased upper body strength from three months of package handling turned out to be useful in the professional job, since my first task was to move the office out of my employer's home into a professional building!).

On the other hand, I don't think there's one metric for what everybody is looking for in terms of meaning. For me, intellectual stimulation for its own sake and a certain amount of recognition is the primary motivator. Money, beyond a basic living, is secondary for me (though it can be regarded as one form of recognition).

On the other hand, of course, if you aren't making a basic living, then not being paid can leave you feeling pretty disgusted, especially if you went in with the expectation of income.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I think I'm burned out right now because of my personal failure - I'm a heavy procrastinator. It simply means not doing some task, because I convince myself I must be doing something more important, and naturally I get very little done. There is no way you can be a heavy procrastinator like me and not get into trouble. When I get into trouble, I get stressed out and easily frustrated, and if the environment isn't in "support mode" and you have to keep on working missing deadline after deadline but still need to keep going - you'll probably burnout too. Well, there is an obvious cure - do the work, and get happy - right? Anyone else?

Author information

Pieter Hintjens's picture


Pieter Hintjens is the CEO of iMatix Corporation, and the author of numerous free software tools published by iMatix. He wrote his first GPLed software (Libero) in 1992. He was the main author of the AMQP messaging protocol specification, and iMatix's OpenAMQ messaging software handles around 1bn messages a day for a large bank. He is the past president of the FFII, an association which has fought software patents and defended open standards and competition since 1999. In 2007 he founded the Digital Standards Organization.