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Rust-out: Burnout’s counterpart and its role in workplace stagnation

Burnout has become firmly embedded in the workplace wellbeing lexicon, but its counterpart, rust-out, is now also becoming more prominent. 

According to psychiatrist Professor Christopher Combs, rust-out occurs when you don’t have much to do, or you believe that what you do isn’t important. It’s characterised by feeling uninspired, undervalued and understimulated which, in turn, can lead to low energy, apathy, or irritability. 

Let’s dig a little deeper…

Origins: When employee capability exceeds challenge

Rust-out, and burnout, impact our ability to achieve flow which is when we’re so absorbed in an activity that time passes faster than normal, we feel intrinsically motivated and we lack awareness of our surroundings. To achieve flow, we need a balance between the challenge of the task and our capability to complete the task. However, rust-out means the capability exceeds the challenge (whereas for burnout, the challenge exceeds the capability).

Inevitably, there are moments within every job which are a little tedious, but this extends to a loss of purpose. Sarah Markham, founder of Calm In A Box, observes that it can trigger a ‘doom loop’ where you repeat unhelpful stories about yourself which adversely affects your wellbeing. Specifically, your confidence is impacted, and it erodes your performance as you no longer care enough to do your best.

What does rust-out look like aside from a general sense of disinterest? It might manifest as counting down the clock until 5:30, struggling to motivate yourself on Mondays, or browsing the internet more than usual. Left unresolved, rust-out can lead to depression, tiredness, cravings for sugary or fatty foods and even an increase in risk-taking behaviours.

Drivers: Why gender and global events increase susceptibility

Evidence suggests this should be on every organisation’s radar to maintain employee wellbeing. A survey by recruiter Michael Page found that only 24% of employees are hugely passionate about their career, even though almost half (48%) believe “a sense of purpose” is a key driver for their happiness. 

Employees are at greater risk of rust-out since the pandemic. Such a traumatic global event caused many people to reconsider their values and what they’re searching for in a career. Consequently, they feel less inspired by their current roles, unable to satisfy these revised needs.

Unfortunately, women are disproportionately affected by rust-out than men for two reasons. First, according to McKinsey’s (2022) report on Women in the Workplace, only one in four women are in leadership roles despite being as ambitious and hard-working as men. In addition, highly capable and experienced women return to work from maternity leave often taking roles of lower responsibility due to childcare duties.

Solutions: Honest conversations and rediscovering your passions

First and foremost, identify specifically what it is that you miss doing and what you want to do more of. After all, it’s hard to find a solution to a vague problem. Do you yearn for more creativity, client interactions, or tough negotiations? Set-up a meeting with you manager, or if this feels too uncomfortable, then raise it in your next scheduled meeting, and explain why you’re struggling at the moment. 

As daunting as it can be to raise the issue, it’s hard for your manager to help you thrive unless they’re aware of the situation. They could then potentially enrol you on a training course, assign you a specific project, set challenging and meaningful goals, or better reward your accomplishments. 

Of course, it isn’t always this easy to address a workplace problem, and, in such cases, looking outside of work can alleviate rust-out symptoms. Is there any extracurricular learning you can embark upon, or perhaps start/revisit a hobby that satisfies the uninspired part of you?

If you sense stagnation creep in, don’t panic. Psychologist Audrey Tangs says, “Adversity can teach us a lot more than constant success ever could – and the changes we make in ourselves at the time often set the conditions for us to thrive in future.”

Date: 27th June 2023

Word count: 650