How to recognise, prevent, and treat burnout


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

The FFII, like any organisation that relies on pro-bono efforts from its members and supporters, 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. To some extent the workgroup structure of the FFII is designed to reduce the risk of burnout.

Disclaimer: I'm not a psychiatrist and this article is based on my own experiences of working in pro-bono contexts over 15 years before joining the FFII.


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.

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 open source 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..."

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:

  1. 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.
  2. People need day jobs. This is hard but necessary. Getting money from somewhere else makes it much easier to sustain a sacrificial project.
  3. 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.
  4. 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".
  5. 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 a setting like FFII but sometimes it's possible. It's why we are trying to build up a small core of professionals, who we know can work for years without getting burnt-out.

articles/Burnout (last edited 2009-08-15 22:27:08 by localhost)

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