Preventing Maintainer Burnout

by Shauna Gordon-McKeon

While maintaining an open source project can be fun and fulfilling, it can also be very stressful. Maintainers who struggle with the demands of their role often lack supprot to address the problems they're facing.

Things which contribute to maintainer burnout include:

  • being the sole maintainer for a project, and feeling unable to take vacations/time off
  • having to take on unexpected roles, such as a developer who finds themselves acting as a licensing expert, community manager, and/or product manager
  • feeling overwhelmed by community requests, especially those framed in an angry or entitled way
  • a lack of funding can limit the amount of time maintainers have for a project, increasing overwhlem, and inducing a feeling of being taken for granted

Many of the things that cause burnout can be fixed if caught early enough. Unfortunately, many people have a hard time noticing, acknowledging, and speaking out about their emotional experiences. This is especially true for men, who make up a disproportionate share of open source maintainers. Rather than addressing problems while they're still small, many maintainers will "just push through", only acknowledging the strain they're under once it has grown unbearable.

At this point, such a maintainer is severely burned out. Fixing the problems that cause burnout can take significant additional effort—effort that a severely burned out maintainer is unlikely to be able to give.

This can lead to the dispiriting petering out of what once was a vibrant and beloved project. Even worse, it can lead to the loss of a once happy member of our open source community.