What is Burnout?

This article is one of a series in preparation for the Burnout core conversation at Drupalcon London. This article will discuss what burnout is; future posts will cover how individuals can respond to burnout, what about burnout is unique to the Drupal community, and what the Drupal community can do to deal with burnout.

What is burnout? Many of us "just know" the answer to this, as we've we've struggled with it ourselves in our professional, personal, or community work. I found a couple of high quality discussions of burnout. The first is the book The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It1, written by the leading researcher in the field, Christina Maslach. The second was the seminal article Burned Out2 from Scientific American Mind magazine.

First, a more formal definition of burnout from Preventing Burnout3:

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Burnout reduces your productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.

Most of us have days when we feel bored, overloaded, or unappreciated; when the dozen balls we keep in the air aren’t noticed, let alone rewarded; when dragging ourselves out of bed requires the determination of Hercules. If you feel like this most of the time, however, you may be flirting with burnout.

Maslach describes three dimensions of burnout:

  1. Exhaustion: Feeling overextended, both emotionally and physically
  2. Cynicism: Taking a cold, cynical attitude toward responsibilities.
  3. Ineffectiveness: When people feel ineffective, they feel a growing sense of inadequacy.

She goes on to describe these causes of the syndrome:

  1. We feel overloaded.
  2. We lack control over what we do.
  3. We are not rewarded for our work.
  4. We experience a breakdown in community.
  5. We aren't treated fairly.
  6. We have to deal with conflicting values.

The conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual: People burn out because of flaws in their characters, behavior, or productivity. In other words, *people* are the problem, and the solution is to change them or get rid of them.

But our research argues most emphatically otherwise. We believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the *social environment* in which people work. The structure and functioning of the workplace shape how people interact with one another and how they carry out their jobs.

The Scientific American Mind article describes twelve stages of burnout.:

  1. A compulsion to prove oneself (demonstrating worth obsessively) "It tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily."
  2. Working harder and longer; an inability to switch off.
  3. Neglecting our own needs (erratic sleeping, eating disrupted, lack of social interaction)
  4. Displacement of conflicts (problems are dismissed, we may feel threatened, panicky and jittery)
  5. Revision of values (values are skewed, friends and family dismissed, hobbies seen as irrelevant, work is only focus)
  6. Denial of emerging problems (intolerance, perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined, social contacts harder. Cynicism, aggression. Problems are viewed as caused by time pressure and work, not because of life changes)
  7. Withdrawal (social life small or non-existent, need to feel relief from stress, alcohol/drugs)
  8. Odd behavior (changes in behavior obvious, friends and family concerned)
  9. Depersonalization (Seeing neither self nor others as valuable, and no longer perceive own needs.)
  10. Inner Emptiness
  11. Depression: Feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, future feels bleak and dark
  12. Burnout Syndrome: Can include total mental and physical collapse. Time for full medical attention.

This has been a quick list-oriented discussion of burnout, but the book and article I used as sources are recommended.

In the next post, we'll talk about what individuals can do about burnout.


  1. The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997 ↩︎

  2. Scientific American Mind, June/July 2006, "Burned Out", by Ulrich Kraft ↩︎

  3. Preventing Burnout: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies ↩︎


I may already be too burned

I may already be too burned out... Post the fix before I mentally collapse and am unable to receive your knowledge. Thanks!

encouraging exercise and non-drinking activities

I think one thing we can do to help is to create community around activities that don't involve booze when we get together at Camps, Meetups, and Cons.

It is hard to coordinate that kind of thing but exercise is a great way to reduce stress.

A useful topic

As a volunteer web master for a nonprofit organization, I am in the process of doing a major make-over on our Drupal site. I only have late evenings to work on it and I have been averaging 3-4 hours sleep per night for several months.

As a result of reading your series of articles, I am closing the lid on my lap top at 9:pm tonight. Plus, I am going to add a reference to your articles on our organization's volunteer web site. As you say, burn out among volunteers is common.

I hope you will find the time to keep writing on this worthy and much needed topic (without over doing it and going into burn out).

"As a result of reading your

"As a result of reading your series of articles, I am closing the lid on my lap top at 9:pm tonight. "
- I came to the same conclusion. We get so caught up in our work that we forget about the transitions that are occurring between us & the world around us. This article really was a mind-opener (or a powerful reminder). I wonder what other mental malfunctions are being empowered through over-working with Drupal....

On a side note - at meetups, conferences, etc. we should all start smoking marijuana and taking psychedelics together rather than drinking. haha. Seriously though. We have so many creative minds. Imagine if they were allowed to truly connect on a higher level (instead of dulling our senses with alcohol). The only thing stopping us is the law... DrupalCon Denver should be pretty pot-friendly, though I am waiting for DrupalCon Amsterdam for some real adventures with my fellow Drupalers!

I think it's great and

I think it's great and courageous of you to talk about an issue like this. Thank you!

It's great to find these

It's great to find these discussions and particularly in relation to the Drupal community which is by definition (I think) one of creative and on average overly intelligent individuals that have strong and ambitious drive.

These ingredients though, inherently make life difficult. As said in the researched articles, burn out is more a product of environments conflicting with personality. Or rather, when you sport a creative mind and enjoy the pursuit of quality and innovation as a form of growth (as so many of dedicated Drupallers are happy to donate time and insights for free) you will inevitably collide with what most of your professional environment perceives as growth: the financial bottom line, the securing of ones private and individualistic wealth and if need be, at the costs of others. This is a conflict that is unavoidable and more related to the personal values of individuals with high empathy, intelligence and creativity. That doesn't pay the bills, your clients do. When you burn out in the process of making their sites great, they feel sorry for their deadline. Not your well being. Corporations weren't built on the values of a community like Drupal where we try to benefit (and contribute to) each other.

Our audience and our peers are from two different worlds entirely. Or else, they wouldn't need us. And as a designer or developer, you are caught in between and thus directly in the line of fire. Coping with this includes the above advice on preventing and recognizing burnout but in my opinion, a form of resignation to the fact that even though we perceive other goals greater than money, money still rules the world and right now, will always win. This may sound cynical, but hey, that comes with my perpetual burn out!