An open approach to recovering from burnout

Contributing to open source requires transparency, collaboration, and honesty. These same qualities can help you avoid getting overwhelmed at work, too.
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Editor's note: This article is part of a series on working with mental health conditions. It details the author's personal experiences and is not meant to convey professional medical advice or guidance.


I'm writing this in the middle of another cold and seemingly endless New England winter. It's the time of year many people begin feeling the effects of burnout.

At the same time, we're observing the first anniversary of many lockdowns since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. So feelings of burnout are even more widespread.

For those of us lucky enough to work from home, work is actually something of a release from all this. But it's still work. However, this release gets complicated when we have other responsibilities around the home, notably for those of us helping our kids school from home or providing additional medical care for family members.

We have so many responsibilities to meet and tasks to perform, and no matter how hard we try, we never seem to be able to get ahead of things. Life seems out of control, and we're always having to react to new and unexpected situations.

So, yes, this is definitely a time when lots of us are feeling burnout. But working more openly—or at least adopting a few open practices as part of your work—can actually help lessen the impact of burnout in some instances.

In this article, I'll explain what I mean.

Understanding burnout

But first: What is burnout, and what are its root causes?

The World Health Organization (WHO)—which formalized its definition of burnout in 2019—defines burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." It has three dimensions, according to the WHO: "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy."

One indicator of burnout is the feeling that no matter how much you do and how hard you work, you'll always feel like you're falling behind trying to reach your goals. Instead of feeling accomplished, you end up feeling exhausted and frustrated. You can work extra hours or even extra jobs, but you always seem to fall further from your goals instead of getting closer to them. It feels like you're carrying a weight that gets heavier and heavier no matter what you do.

This feeling can cause you to work harder, and invest more time and effort into the tasks you're performing in hopes of catching up or getting ahead of the demands on your time, but there always seems to be more and more things to do. Consider postal worker Newman on the TV show "Seinfeld," who explains how no matter what he does, "the mail just keeps coming."

There are countless books, articles, and videos available to help you deal with burnout. They approach the topic from a social, psychological, or mental health perspective. Further to these resources, in what ways can an open approach help you to avoid or recover from burnout?

Open communication

The first way an open approach can help with burnout is through open communication.

First, you need to be honest and transparent with yourself. You can't set yourself up for failure by over-committing and deceiving yourself regarding the level of work that you can achieve. You can’t tell yourself "if I work this weekend, then I'll be caught up," if the real problem is too heavy a workload. It's important to be open and honest with yourself about the true nature of the problem and your options for resolving that problem.

Second, you need to be open with your peers, teammates, and community. It's natural for anyone faced with stress or pressure to withdraw (to "circle the wagons," as some say). However, withdrawing and shutting down communication only make the chances of burnout worse. It leads to a sense of detachment and isolation. Shutting down communications and imposing self-isolation only creates an entirely new layer of stress, which itself will further contribute to burnout. 

More communication, not less, is most helpful for combating burnout.

When you find yourself in a burnout situation, try not to hide. Don't let a sense of shame or embarrassment—felt, perhaps, because you cannot "catch up" on tasks (because the scope of the tasks is simply too great for anyone to achieve)—keep you from reaching out to others. If you're under pressure due to work deadlines, open communication with co-workers can help. The key is to share information; by doing so you not only give others information on the problems you face but also, in return, information on how to better cope with those problems.

Just as open source software is designed, developed, and debated in public through open and honest communication, your team can discuss and debate ideas about different ways to solve problems related to burnout, evaluate options, and refine them until better solutions for relief become apparent.

For starters, you'll need to feel comfortable explaining why you're not able to accept a task assigned (or why you're requesting a deadline extension for an assignment). I've found that trying to slow the pace of work can help a great deal with avoiding burnout. There's a saying in sports: Skilled players are able to "slow the game down" by not getting caught up in the excitement of the moment. Instead, they're able to be proactive in situations and not be caught having to react. A "go slow" or even a "say no" approach can help you to regain some measure of control of your life to avoid burnout.

Communication about these issues can often begin as informal conversations with colleagues, maybe even as you share a socially distant coffee break. It's fine to "start small"; open communication doesn't require you to get up on your rooftop and shout "I’m stressed!" Sometimes, it helps to simply get another person's viewpoint on an issue with which you're struggling. Receiving empathy is always nice, but what’s more useful is to hear a fresh perspective, suggestions, or an offer to assist you with sharing the load.

Just as open source software is designed, developed, and debated in public through open and honest communication, your team can discuss and debate ideas about different ways to solve problems related to burnout, evaluate options, and refine them until better solutions for relief become apparent.

Open collaboration

The second way an open approach can help with burnout is through open collaboration.

Just as it is a fundamental principle of economics that there will always be scarcity of some resources, the same is true with time. We will always have more things to do than we have time for. And this perceived lack of time can contribute to burnout. If you are dealing with a problem where it seems as though you are buried with too many things to do, then maybe it’s time to trust someone else to do some of these things. Fear of losing control can lead to your wanting to hang onto tasks that would be better shared with others.

But today, most of our work activities are collaborative to begin with; they involve some form of group. When you're feeling burned out, it's easy to cut yourself off from your fellow group members, either so you can try to better focus on performing tasks—or because you simply feel too exhausted to face anyone. It can be tempting to "just get away from everyone and everything," but becoming isolated can increase the feeling of burnout—so try to become more collaborative, not less.

Remember, too, that collaboration is always a two-way (or multi-way) street and it seldom involves a single occurrence. When you're working in a group, you have individual deliverables the group expects, and the group as a whole is responsible for delivering something to its larger organization. If you're working in a group that's following an agile model, it’s always helpful to speak up at daily standup meetings and ask for help, as you're a member of a team where success is shared.

I think one of the keys for avoiding individual burnout is to reach out for assistance as early as possible. Likewise, one of the keys for a group’s success is to watch for signs of burnout on the part of team members, and respond quickly.

If you're feeling burned out, don't shut down. Open up.

How can you initiate a conversation about collaborating? I believe one of the best ways is to look for a common thread, whether it be technical or procedural, that ties people or tasks together. If you're working on a large project, your tasks will have to connect with someone else’s tasks. You can reach out to them to share ideas on how to make progress together. It's sort of like what my mother always told me when I went swimming: "Don’t go alone. There's safety in numbers."

Another important aspect of open collaboration is the setting of priorities. Feeling a lack of accomplishment can stem from having so many things to do that you are unable to complete specific tasks. In other words, you might feel yourself being so busy attempting to do everything that you're unable to actually finish anything. By reaching a consensus on goals and priorities with your teammates through proactive open communication and collaboration, you can get a better sense of the true priorities for your group and can focus on what is really important.

While shutting down and withdrawing may feel like natural tendencies when you're experiencing burnout, isolation will probably make things worse. Moreover, a loss of control and a seeming need to always be reacting to factors beyond your control also contribute to burnout. Open communication, open collaboration, and a proactive approach can help point you in a forward direction and restore some measure of control.

If you're feeling burned out, don't shut down. Open up.

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Len is happily employed at Red Hat in the Boston, Massachusetts (USA) area and concentrates on quality for open source middleware and cloud products. Len is also a avid writer and blogger and photographer.

1 Comment

Great article! It's nice they way you connected Open Organization Principles to burnout. Extremely creative people always have just one more thing to do, as the ideas just keep coming. That can overwhelm us all. I like to think of two words when that happens. One is "concurrent", and the other is "sequential". When everything is coming at us all at once (concurrent), we have to line everything up and approach them one at a time (sequential). Within that line, I like to add fun activities to keep my energy up. When you get older, energy becomes extremely important. So, I like to evaluate all activities as either energy consuming or energizing. There must be a balance between the two to be both productive and happy.

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