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Avoiding burnout in the OTW; or, why I aten't ded yet
OTW: Founding member
One of the things which has come up a lot during this election is the issue of burnout within the OTW, and the need to promote sustainability and protect volunteers from burning out. I think this is a challenge for any non-profit, because where you have a (relatively) small number of dedicated people working on a big project that they passionately care about, there are all the ingredients for people to get overworked and/or frustrated. We've definitely lost a lot of people to burnout since the org began, and finding ways of preventing this in future is something that I am really invested in as a potential member of the Board.

I was thinking about this issue and the lessons I have learnt from my time in OTW. Looking over my time with OTW, it seems amazing that I haven't succumbed to burnout, because it's been one hell of a ride! I first got involved in late 2007, and I have been involved consistently ever since, no major breaks (although a few holidays), working with more than one committee. During this time I've been chair of Accessibility, Design and Technology, survived the end of a major relationship, completed a PhD, written a book, started my first career job, and learned how to code from scratch! All of these were massive, sometimes stressful things which demanded a lot out of me, and doing all that could easily have led to me burning out. The task of being AD&T chair alone is easily enough to take over your entire life: it involves constant, day-to-day work, longterm strategic planning, tech decisions, people management (of one of the largest teams in the whole org) and a consistent commitment to being available for meetings and there for committee staffers and volunteers. So why, I wonder, have I not burnt out? I think there are answers beyond luck, and those answers inform my ideas about how to develop things across the org.

The first, overwhelmingly important reason is that AD&T and coders has consistently had a policy of overt praise and encouragement. It's actually a bit of a standing joke: the icon for this post comes from a conversation we had after some comments in an article about open-source projects where some men complained about women wanting there to be a 'mushy' culture. Well, we're proud of our 'evil' mush and it makes a big difference! From my very first code commits, I was praised and encouraged by the people around me, and made to feel my work was valued. The 2009 AD&T chair, Maia, was amazingly good at being vocal about everyone's achievements, and about emphasising the way they all contributed to a common goal. This is definitely something I tried to take forward into my own time as AD&T chair, and beyond: I try to always comment when I see great work, and to share my enthusiasm. I also added a 'Celebrate our achievements' section to the AD&T agenda with the specific aim of reminding us to celebrate achievements that might be overlooked. This doesn't do everything I hoped it would - I think there are still people who work quietly away in the background who could be celebrated more - but it does help us stop and think about what is great, even when we're stressed. I also love the way it's become a place to celebrate non-OTW achievements: getting a new job, having a baby, finishing a school project. This is important because i think that a successful org recognises the whole person: if you've been working hard on something in your day-to-day life, it's easy to feel guilty that you haven't had as much time to volunteer, so celebrating that work as well is really helpful. If I make it onto Board, one of the things I would like to do is to institute some ways for Board to lead that culture of valuing and praising: I think it is important for Board members to be present 'on the ground' so they can support people at the time things are happening (and hear about them), but I would also like to see Board members more explicitly praising work in a more fine-grained way in all-org meetings, emails to volunteers, and in public posts. I think our existing Board is already enthusiastic and praise-driven, but there are still things that could be improved. In particular, I think Board members can ensure that committee chairs get explicit praise - often this is something that dies away a bit because people assume chairs know they are awesome!

Another thing that helped me avoid burnout was some really great mentoring and support. This was especially important when I was committee chair, which was a big responsibility and which also involves some work that can be less fun, such as managing conflicts between committee members. [personal profile] allison was particularly good at mentoring and always being there when I needed to freak out or ask advice. Naomi (Novik) and [personal profile] elz were amazing at helping me cope with big issues, too, especially technical issues which were often challenging for me to fully understand. I think it is super-important for people to have this kind of support - small things can start to really stress you out and become disproportionately upsetting when you feel like you have nowhere to turn. I'd like to encourage this kind of mentoring throughout the org: one way that I would do this would be by writing up some advice for committee chairs, because I think they are the first point of support for most staffers and volunteers, and so I'd like to emphasise this part of their role. Day-to-day, as a Board member, I think actually giving this sort of mentoring to chairs is a huge part of the job: it's important both in the short-term (chairs are happier) and in the longer-term (because you are modelling a good way of working and so other people in the org are likely to do it too, creating a trickle-down effect.

Close personal relationships and an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect are really important in general for preventing burnout. Obviously, feeling cared-for and respected makes for a much nicer experience overall! But it also really shows its worth when conflicts do arise. Several times in my work with the OTW, I have been involved in conflict where the parties involved in an issue had very different views. In this situation, the passion people feel about the org can become suddenly problematic, because it means they ALSO feel passionate about these issues of conflict and people can easily become upset and frustrated by the fact they're being prevented from taking this passion forward in the 'right' way. In these situations, I have found it enormously helpful to have established a friendly and respectful relationship with the people I work with, because having that basis helps you to stop and think 'Hey, I like and respect this person, so maybe I should also be respectful towards their position and not assume they are doing this just to be mean to me,' even if you think they are WRONG WRONG WRONG. I also think that in these situations, it is immensely important to have someone who will step back and encourage everyone to calm down: this is a point Naomi made in her recent post on effective virtual teams and it's one I agree with 100%. I think that the ability to do this is a really essential characteristic of a Board member. I think I am pretty good at it, but I would like to give a shout-out to [profile] hele as a Board member who does this really effectively: I definitely see her as a model for success. Ensuring this happens when conflicts arise is really important for preventing burnout, because getting embroiled in a conflict where everyone gets angry and entrenched and nothing can be resolved is probably the no. 1 way of ensuring that everyone winds up miserable and exhausted and wanting never to have to deal with any of it again. (ETA Of course, this only works if you are willing to compromise and sometimes live with a decision you don't like: if people feel that they never succeed in effecting change they are very likely indeed to burn out.)

Finally, I think the thing that has helped me avoid burnout is being part of a team, and a team in which the environment was such that you could step back for a while and know that other people would take the load. I think that Board members and committee chairs have a really important role in making sure that staffers are helped to recognise when they're becoming overwhelmed and that solutions are found. I'd like to institute a policy of Board liaisons talking through this issue with committee chairs on a one-to-one basis on a regular basis, thinking about the tasks that the committee is taking on and who is doing them, and whether people need more help. And through the org, I'd like to encourage paired & grouped working for people who find it right for them (since I know that for some people, that would be actively stressful and unhappymaking) so that people don't feel alone, and so that there is backup when someone needs to step out. This is also great from the point of view of sustainability, since it means that there is more skills-sharing and less chance that everything rests on one person's shoulders.

tl;dr: Board needs to encourage praise, friendliness, and working together, along with a dollop of 'let's all step back', and people are much less likely to get burnt out!

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