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July 10, 2023

What Is Rust-out? Meet Burnout's Boring Alter Ego

Rosie Robinson

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Imagine that your inbox is completely empty, and your to-do list is done and dusted. Work is quiet… maybe a little too quiet?

Boredom might sound appealing to those who are constantly rushed off their feet. But feeling underworked may be more common and damaging than you think. In fact, a recent study showed that almost 20 percent of U.S. workers feel "actively disengaged" from their work. It's such a prolific problem that it even has a name: rust-out.

Rust-out vs. Burnout

If burnout is the stressed and tired employee rushing from one task to the next, rust-out is their lethargic and unmotivated colleague.

The term, originally coined by psychotherapist Paula Coles, refers to chronic boredom borne out of unstimulating work. In contrast, burnout is caused by overstimulation. And while it may sound contradictory, doing too little can be just as emotionally exhausting as doing too much.

The causes of burnout and rust-out may be poles apart but the symptoms can be surprisingly similar. Those suffering with rust-out can feel agitated, short-tempered or anxious, and may procrastinate to avoid work that doesn't motivate them. If left unchecked, long-term boredom can even affect your eating and sleeping habits, and lead to depression.

Rust-out could be the wake-up call you never knew you needed!
Rust-out could be the wake-up call you never knew you needed!

How to Spot the Signs of Rust-out

Much like real rust, rust-out can linger below the surface and may not be immediately obvious. You may even mistake it for laziness. Instead, rust-out can actually be a sign that you've outgrown your role or responsibilities.

Perhaps you feel that your job is the same day in, day out, with no sign of change. Or that the work you do doesn't align with your personal values. It could be that your skills aren't being put to proper use. You're certainly not learning anything new.

And while rust-out can occur at any point in your career, these feelings are particularly common among new graduates and middle managers. The former may feel limited by a role that doesn't reflect their abilities and qualifications. The latter may feel stuck in their routine, unable to progress, and believe that their career has plateaued.

How to Defeat Rust-out

Whether you're suffering from rust-out yourself, or you manage someone else who is, spotting the signs early is the best way to tackle it before it gets out of hand.

Be Honest

When a job becomes boring or unfulfilling, it's easy to assume that you need to move on to greener pastures. But a new job isn't the only answer.

Be honest with your manager about how you're feeling and discuss ways that you can incorporate more of what you love into your existing role. There may be more opportunities to craft your job to your liking than you realize!

As a manager, be compassionate and broach the subject carefully. Assure your team member that you're there to help, and establish a solid understanding of the problem before you offer solutions.

Identify Your Values

One common reason that people feel unhappy in their jobs is that their work doesn't reflect their values. Consider the times in your life and career when you've felt the happiest, proudest and most fulfilled.

Perhaps it’s when you've helped someone through a difficult time, solved a seemingly impossible problem, or made a lucrative sale. Once you've determined what matters most to you, you'll be able to prioritize these values and steer your career in the right direction.

As a manager, be patient and open-minded; this process can take time and you may hear some hard truths, but it's vital that you don’t become defensive. In fact, this feedback is crucial to ensure that your team is running at its best.

Find Your Passions

Do you have any special skills that aren’t being utilized? For example, do you have a creative streak that's going unnoticed in an admin-heavy role? When our strengths and passions are ignored or underappreciated, it's easy to lose motivation.

Identify the things that you do best and explore ways that you can incorporate them into your job, as well as other positions and opportunities that better suit your skillset.

It's a manager's role to ensure that everyone's jobs align with their strengths so keep an eye out for skills gaps in your teams. What new opportunities could your team members take on? What support or training would they need to develop? How can you help them achieve their goals?

The Bright Side of Rust-out

Rust-out can feel like a dark cloud hanging over you, but the good news is that there is a silver lining. If you're feeling unfulfilled in your job, then now is a great opportunity to reassess your current position, immediate opportunities for growth, and long-term goals.

Useful Resources

Here's a curated list of Mind Tools relevant resources (please keep in mind you may need to be a member of the Mind Tools Club to access certain resources):

What Are Your Values?

Overcoming Procrastination (Skillbook)

How to Take Care of Your “Social Battery”

Job Crafting

Avoiding Burnout


Blog author Rosie Robinson

About the Author

With a background in writing and illustration, Rosie uses her creative eye to produce eye-catching content. Specializing in videos, newsletters and articles, Rosie produces, writes, edits, and proofreads a wide range of resources. When she's not busy working, she'll likely be found whipping up cakes for her friends and family!

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