Burnout in Free Software Communities

Free software, by its nature, attracts self-driven people who like to be involved in diverse and challenging projects. I know, I am one of those people. I work with those people, I hang out with those people. But there’s a danger, when you’re a self-driven, motivated person, of over-committing to too many projects, and burning out.

Free software projects are places where burnout can happen, moreso than other places. The bazaar style model is fertile ground for burnout. There are always new projects starting up, always exciting things going on. New projects always need volunteers and, with a limited number of contributors available, it’s unlikely that a project will turn down someone who has the requisite skills and who is enthusiastic. This is particularly a danger when a contributor first comes to the project. You want to make a big impact, are super-excited, and think that the best way to become enmeshed in the community is to do everything.

This is exacerbated by the global, highly networked, nature of the project. There are no fixed hours during which work is done. People are always online working. People who enjoy their work and who are prone to working anyway, work all of the time, at all times of the day.

Throughout my years on the project, through my own experience, and through observing other people, I’ve seen that path that people go down that leads them to burning out, and walked that path myself.

I’m no stranger to overcommitting. As well as finishing off a book about the history of the WordPress project, I help out with docs, am involved with a number of large WordCamps, developer.WordPress.org, and a feature plugin. I also speak at WordCamps and meetups, and do my best to be available to if any contributors need help. At the recent working days at the community summit, I spent two days hopping from meeting to meeting with disparate groups of people.

I do, however, try to stop myself from taking on any more, particularly since I’m working on a mammoth project. Every time I feel myself jumping forward to volunteer, I pull myself back. And when I fail to do so, I am lucky that I have a colleague who I can pass stuff on to when I realise that I’ve taken on way too much (thanks Sam!).

Whose responsibility is it?

Dealing with contributor burnout is a difficult challenge. Only the contributor knows exactly how many projects they have committed themselves to. And since we operate in a bazaar, everyone is able to volunteer and have a voice wherever they want. But when you’re full of energy and ready to make a big impact in a project, it had be hard to forsee what could happen in the future. It’s so easy to volunteer for everything that comes along that sounds interesting or that could raise your profile.

As a project, we have an interest in ensuring that contributors don’t burn out. For one thing, we have a responsibility to individuals’ good mental health. Experiencing burnout is extremely traumatic and have a long-lasting impact on the contributor’s personal and professional life. Beyond that, we have a responsibility as a project to attract and retain contributors who will have a long-term positive impact on the project.

Signs of burnout

Earlier this year I was working on a particularly challenging section of the WordPress book. I was getting stressed out. I didn’t want to be thinking about it. My work was piling up and I couldn’t see the end of it. A close friend pinged me on Skype to call me out on something I’d said on Twitter that was particularly terse and cold. My response was to launch into a tirade and tell him to “fuck the fuck off.”

Day to day, this is not how I deal with things. And when I had calmed down from my rage, I realised that, even though my reasoning for rebuking him had been fine, the way I had gone about it was totally irrational and out of character.

This is one of the clearest signs that someone is burnt out, or approaching burnout: when normally rational people deal with problems in irrational ways. I’ve seen it happen in many meetings – someone who you’ve been working with for a long time deals with an issue in a way that’s totally out of character. They are terse, they snap, and get into arguments.

The other way to detect burnout is less obvious. Someone just disappears. They’ve been really active and all of a sudden they’re not around so much. Some people don’t get angry, they just withdraw. In these cases it’s hard to know what’s going on inside somebody’s head. You may have a general sense of apathy towards your work and life, find it difficult to get work done, and be unable to concentrate.

Preventing burnout

As a project, we shouldn’t just be thinking about burnout when it happens, but how we can prevent it from happening in the first place. How do we prevent people from getting so stressed out that they end up breaking down? How do we nurture our contributors so that they grow into their roles, rather than rushing in and burning out?

What you can do

  • think about the area in which you can have the most impact and focus on that doggedly. Tackling one problem will have greater impact on the project than trying to do a million things at once.
  • have interests other than WordPress (or whatever Free Software project you’re involved with). You need down time to think about other things, then you can return to the project with fresh eyes.
  • having other interests also helps with your sense of identity. If your sense of identity and self-worth comes only from the project, then if you do crash and burn it’ll make it ten times worse.
  • make time every day to do something that you love, whether that’s writing code, writing, painting, drawing, spending time with your family, running, or whatever. When you’re prevented from doing the things you love you’ll feel resentment, which can contribute to burnout.
  • if you think you’re becoming overstretched, talk to someone. There are lots of people who want to help. It’s better for one project to fail than to lose and damage a contributor.
  • take care of your health. Eat properly, exercise, get out of the house every day.

What we can do

  • be aware of the signs of burnout and talk to contributors who are having problems.
  • ensure that no one spreads themselves too thinly.
  • create a collaborative culture, one where individual and heroic feats of coding, writing, or organisation, are given less weight than participation in a team effort.
  • disseminate knowledge to ensure that no one is a single point of failure. This puts too much mental pressure on contributors and makes the project structure fragile.
  • make it clear that it’s okay for a person to step down from a project, that someone else can be found to take on the work.
  • if a contributor is struggling with one project, help them to find another one that they can get excited about.
  • create good workflows that help people get work done, rather than making it difficult for contributors.
  • stay on top of communication. Being stuck behind roadblocks that you can do nothing about is incredibly stressful and frustrating.

Want to read more?


  1. I learned about this a long time ago, before I even thought about contributing to open source stuff. Whenever you are volunteering your own free-time to a project, it becomes very easy to spend way way more time on it than is healthy, and then when things go wrong, you quickly become burned out.

    I had this problem with organising community hockey events many moons ago and am very careful about what I volunteer for and at what point I pull out now.


  2. create a collaborative culture, one where individual and heroic feats of coding, writing, or organisation, are given less weight than participation in a team effort.

    … might prevent me from buying anyone chocolate for taking notes again. But it’s true.


    1. Sending someone chocolate for writing notes is lovely. There’s a difference between making people feel appreciated and putting people on pedestals who work themselves into the ground. We should never stop making people feel appreciated 🙂


  3. if you think you’re becoming overstretched, talk to someone. There are lots of people who want to help. It’s better for one project to fail than to lose and damage a contributor.

    – I think it takes a lot to trust someone to talk about it. Talking isn’t always easy and can get emotional.


  4. […] The peculiar motivations baked into free software development and academia tend to attract similar sorts of overachievers. To rise to the top of your field, you’ve got to do large amounts of unpaid labor, while still doing enough of your paid labor to keep your job. This means that the most successful people tend to be those who are spending the greatest amount of their spare time working for free. A couple of consequences fall out of this arrangement. First, people who are already in a position of privilege (financial and otherwise) are able to climb the career ladder more easily. This setup also means thatt successful people are likely to have a sense of self-worth that is closely connected to their work. And these factors mean that successful academics as well as free software contributors are more likely to suffer from burnout. […]


  5. Thanks for this post, Siobhan. I imagine you probably didn’t write it for me specifically, but it kinda felt like you did 🙂

    Anyway, your comments got me thinking about how the propensity for burnout in free software is actually not so different from the same propensity among academics, and that there’s a similar dynamic at play behind it. I wrote a blog post about it: http://teleogistic.net/2014/11/unpaid-labor-in-academic-and-free-software-communities/


    1. Thanks Boone! I wrote it thinking about all of my friends who say yes to all of the things (myself included) 🙂

      It true that there’s similar pressure in academia, particularly because there’s such an expectation to keep publishing and raise your profile.


  6. Mental health, in general, is a thing that is often neglected in freelance work space, I feel. I often grapple with many aspects of this: Overworked, feelings of inadequacy, fatigue, self-doubt and the list goes on…

    You’ve described me (and a lot of other folks I imagine) when listing out signs of burnout. I feel like I “checked out” socially for about two months. In any case, thanks for writing this.

    It’s good to know I’m not alone. =)


    1. I’m glad that you know you’re not alone :). It’s important to keep talking about issues like this so that people are reminded that everyone is susceptible to stress and burnout and anxiety. It can be extremely isolating to feel on edge and just hearing other people’s stories helps with that.


  7. […] in volunteer-driven communities. If you’re interested in reading more on this then I suggest this post which covers the topic very well. But I want to write briefly on a different aspect. I want to talk […]


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