During the first data collection phase of my project, I interviewed people from various FLOSS communities on the notions of newcomer experience and also citizenship behaviours. One of the leading questions was rotating around the idea of members who have heavy workloads and more importantly what a ‘good’ member should do when it happens. It was striking to notice that most people identified the notion of burnout as an important problem occuring in FLOSS communities.
I talked to some more people about the importance of burnout in FLOSS communities and it confirmed the impression that I had about burnout being an important phenomenon in FLOSS communities. However, this seems to be an area quite unexplored by research. I also have a feeling that in online communities that relies on the production of content by its members and which are based on a certain hierarchy of roles and tasks, burnout is potentially a problem. It would be fascinating to study burnout in online gaming communities such as World of Warcraft or wiki-based communities such as Wikipedia, Wikibooks. I am sure there are other types of communities that I am not thinking of where burnout shall be investigated.
Here are a few quotes of what some of the people I interviewed said after being asked what a FLOSS community member shall do when experiencing a heavy workload:
Burnout is a pretty big factor in FOSS. A lot of people get burned out for working too much.
I don’t think it is important for a good community citizen to tell other people when their workload is very heavy. But if the workload is so heavy that it is considered heavy, then that person might have been managing himself poorly and then will probably burn out. So in the practical sense, there is a real risk of burn out there.
Often people wait too long until they ask for help. So they are completely overwhelmed and are about to burn out, that happens. They are about to give up and often I have seen people stepping up to help out.
I can imagine there is a lot of people who overcommit themselves and burn out, because of their personal management. I would say it is more their personal management, not the community per se. And a good community would have people looking for that message, and to meet and say “that’s great, this is the work we think you are doing for us, what shall we take away and give to someone else? What could we do to help you?
I guess the first step would be to define what burnout is in the context of FLOSS communities.Past efforts in conceptualizing the idea on burnout seemed to acknowledge that the unique content of burnout has to do with the depletion of an individual’s energetic resources” (Shirom, 1989, p. 331). Can we say the same about burnout in FLOSS communities?
In addition, the investigation of the phenomenon of burnout shall include a reflection about the consequences of burnout in FLOSS communities. How is a FLOSS community affected when a member burns out? Whereas in a typical organization, a person burning out would for instance, not perform well, be absent, leave, or create negative vibes with the people he/she works with, the idea of burnout has some specificities when considered in an online social context.
It is also important to explore the factors that lead a member to burn out. Why do people commit themselves to heavy workloads and then burn out? One aspect could be related to a motivation to be recognized by the community some interviewees pointed out:
if you want to increase your influence on a project then ultimately taking onboard more stuff is the way to do it. Because you will become a bigger contributor, especially if you do the stuff that other people don’t want to do. There is more respect from the community.
if you are going to be a valuable contributor, you have to start taking big jobs [...] If people don’t start taking on big tasks, it’s just not good.
A lot of people are too modest or don’t want to impose so they accept a lot of work. They keep accepting work, then they end up doing no work because they burned out.
Finally, it is particularly important for communities to be able to identify the signs or precursors of burnout as well as to implement some practices that prevent members from burning out (or at least decrease the number of occurences). This is certainly the most relevant aspect for communities but this can only be achieved after having properly defined burnout in the FLOSS context, identified the factors leading to it and its consequences on the functioning of communities.
A first piece of answer about implementing practices that prevent burnout may be in setting up a community culture in which a ‘good’ member is not someone that accepts all assignments and takes as many tasks as possible but rather someone who puts his hand up when he/she is not able to do the work and lets the rest of the community know.
I think it should be actively encouraged to put your hand up and say “I am doing too much work, help!”
One of the important aspects in open source is that you are asked as a maintainer of the project to find replacements. When you can’t do the work anymore, you don’t have the time or you don’t have the interest. It is very important to let the community know that you are not available to do this, and somebody else can step up and work into it.
I would greatly appreciate the insights or feedback of anyone who has anything to say about the idea of burnout in FLOSS communities or online communities in general. This is an area that I am just starting to explore and my knowledge about it is very shallow. Do not hesitate to contact me.