Why do so many online community professionals choose to leave the profession behind? Is there something about the role that makes burnout more common? An acquaintance of mine was pondering this recently. He wasn’t talking about people who are leaving for greener pastures – he was talking about those who have had enough. Here’s what I told him.
First, let’s cast aside the common causes of burnout that apply to pretty much every profession. For example, feeling like your work doesn’t matter, that you are overworked, that you aren’t adequately rewarded. Those are very common issues that can develop, no matter what your career. Instead, let’s focus on what applies to community professionals, disproportionately.
Complaints and Abuse
We are exposed to the emotions and feelings of individuals at a higher and more consistent rate than most other fields. If you look into burnout for mental health workers and counselors, though their challenges are normally different from our own, you will likely find some correlation between the issues faced by both of our professions.
When you spend a substantial amount of your time listening to the complaints and problems of others, this can lead to something called compassion fatigue, where “the compassion energy that is expended [surpasses your] ability to recover from this energy expenditure, resulting in significant negative psychological and physical consequences” (source).
That’s just one example. Most people who work, deal with complaints, but the direct connection that community pros have to people creates a unique level of accessibility. This doesn’t just mean that we see a higher level of complaints than the average profession, but that we also deal with more abuse. If you talk to people who have been in community for 15 or more years, you will find that this is a long accepted truth. The emotionally draining nature of many community manager roles, of this constant exposure to the feelings of others, is not without a cost.
There is this idea that is bandied about, often by newer entrants into the field, that community pros must be connected 24/7. I fight against that idea loudly and as often as I can, because a lack of boundaries is one of the big things that leads us to burnout. Since our communities do not close, we might choose to think that we must always be on call. An email or a text message away. Worse yet, our bosses might believe this.
Community management at your company might be 24/7 (it probably isn’t), but a person is not. While it might seem like other fields deal with this 24/7 perception, I would argue that few deal with it quite like community. Boundaries are vital, as is time away. Both short term (days off) and long term (vacations).
Proving That We Should Exist
This last one isn’t as prevalent as the first two, but I wanted to include it. At some organizations, where the buy-in to community is inadequate or nonexistent, community pros are called upon to constantly prove the value of their work. Not in a way that is reasonable or helpful, that shows what it adds (or doesn’t) to the bottom line. But in a way that is harmful, taxing and repetitive, that other areas of the business are not subjected to. Proving your value is not unreasonable. However, when you constantly live under the threat of being cut from the budget, because your boss doesn’t value or understand community, that can wear on you.
In some cases, the community professional may not be doing a good enough job of communicating their value. But that isn’t always what is happening. Often, other areas of the business simply have it easier. Some community people simply tire of this fight, and move onto areas that are better understood and less threatened.
I can’t say if community pros burnout at a higher rate than the average profession. Personally, I love community and the work that I have done for 17 years. But, in being independent, I have been fortunate to be able to set strong boundaries and be careful about who informs me of my worth as a professional. I believe those two things to be essential.