Rust-Out: The Harder-To-Recognize Version Of Workplace Burnout

In an Internet-obsessed era, it looks like human affairs and the timeline of events are expressed through buzzwords. Who needs conventional chronology when we only need singular terms to remind us of the key occurrences of each time period? In recent years, new terms have evolved to characterize phenomenal changes in workplace culture around the world.

For instance, 2021 was the year of the "Great Resignation" when millions of employees around the world quit due to drastic post-pandemic changes in workplace rules. Then, 2022 went down in history as the year of "quiet quitting" and "quiet firing" — with the former referring to the practice of doing just the bare minimum requirement as dissatisfaction festers while the latter describes the act of edging an employee out of a company by worsening their dissatisfaction.

We have yet to ride out the first quarter of 2023 yet, but we're seeing a wealth of buzzy workplace terms coming up. "Rust-out" — a twist on the iconic "burnout" — is a happening label that describes one of the latest working trends. Here's what to know about rust-out — the harder-to-recognize version of workplace burnout.

What is rust-out?

Most of us are no strangers to burnout. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome that manifests in the form of "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion and "increased mental distance from one's job" — which ultimately leads to "reduced professional efficacy." In its literal sense, rusting is all about oxidation and it usually comes slowly, which is why a rust-out is much more difficult to recognize than a burnout. With a rust-out, you won't feel sharp pangs of physical fatigue or deprivation of mental breaks as a result of accumulated stress. It's more like a subtle but persistent feeling of emotional weariness and loss of interest that eats you up from the inside in bites so small and soft that you hardly notice you're being stressed. 

Professor of occupational therapy and author Teena Clouston (via Cosmopolitan) defines a rust-out as a state of mind that is "a lot deeper and more profound than boredom. It's where people don't feel they're doing anything purposeful or being recognized. They often feel blocked –- as if there's nowhere for them to progress to, and it can be a much harder issue to address than burnout."

Signs you're experiencing a rust-out

You know you're experiencing a rust-out when you no longer see a sense of meaning or purpose in the work you are doing. You still report to duty, but a sense of ownership over the work of your hands or a sense of belonging is not there. Whatever you're assigned fails to stretch you, and as a result, you're no longer interested in going the extra mile to over-deliver or impress your management. It's not that you don't want to improve your situation and get back into the running towards becoming employee of the year, it's just that you don't know how to light fires under yourself.

Here's what it looks like when you experience a rust-out: you constantly find yourself disengaged from your tasks and always count down the hours until you can clock out. You feel guilty for not pouring more passion into your work. You try various ways to stimulate yourself at work, from creating a motivating work playlist to doing self-affirmations before coming to your office — but to no avail. Your management stops giving you feedback and continues giving you under-challenged assignments. You feel left to your own devices — like a metal roof rusting in acid rain. All sorts of thoughts war through your mind. To salvage your career, you start a frenzied search for a new job where you can work up to your potential.

Does rust-out affect work productivity?

If you are an overachiever or an extra miler, working in an under-challenged job or losing a sense of meaning in what you're doing can predispose you to a rust-out. A perceived lack of meaning in one's employment is a major factor in boredom at work, which ultimately evolves into a woe-is-me mentality and results in reduced work quality.

According to a study published in Anesthesia Equipment, boredom, or a sense of disconnection from purposeful challenges, causes people to feel as though time is passing more slowly. For businesses and organizations, boredom has negative effects on work quality, a decline in team morale, increase in turnover rates, and diminished profitability. For individuals, a sense of under-stimulation and under-performance can stifle creativity and lead to further stress.

Usually, employees that are always bored out of their skulls at work are those who feel marginalized. The most productive employees are those who feel that they are connected to bigger things and that they have allies who are open to working with them toward a common goal. When employees feel included and have a sense of belonging in a working environment, they are less likely to feel excluded and lose a sense of purpose in their jobs.

Causes of a rust-out

The root causes of a rust-out are varied. A rust-out usually happens when you work in a job that you're overqualified for. Everything was perfect in a job interview. You were thrilled to land your job and started work feeling like a burning bush. A few weeks in, your professional fire is put out. Despite your experiences and expertise, your manager assigns you menial tasks that even a junior-level employee can carry out. Your ideas are shot down and you always come up short. You feel under-challenged and you lose a sense of purpose for your work.

Maybe you have applied for the wrong job or you're just really smarter than your boss. If you believe your loss of passion results from your being overqualified for the job, you have two options: get another job or reflect on what success looks like for you.

In certain cases, a rust-out could result from quiet firing, which is when management deliberately makes their employees go through a rough patch at work, such as overburdening them with duties or acting in ways that make them feel underappreciated. The end goal is to make the employee voluntarily withdraw from their duties and resign. If you feel miserable, you'll have to talk to your manager about it and see if anything can be improved. In the worst-case scenario, you'll need to look for other ways to advance your own career, such as seeking legal help or searching for a new job.

How to deal with a rust-out

If you're in a rust-out phase, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge what you're going through instead of continuing your daily grind in a state of self-denial. Taking a breather or going on a vacation is a great way to refresh your mind, reflect on your values, and seek some clarity. When you have lost a sense of purpose for your job, it's tempting to make a quick escape and look for another job. However, it's not the wisest thing to do when you're in a rust-out.

For your own benefit, make a point of remaining in this job that's rusting you out until you've discovered why it rusts you out and what your next course of action would be. Ask yourself if there's a remote possibility that this persistent feeling of disconnection that stands in your way of working with a purpose has to do with an underlying mental health condition and not the job per se. If there's an interconnected relationship between rust-out and mental health disorders, you might want to speak to a therapist and find viable solutions for your issue. If you're certain your unhappiness has to do with the nature of your job, you'll need to have an open dialogue with your boss, discussing what makes you lose a sense of fulfillment in your job and what your management can do to help you gain a deeper sense of meaning in your job.