'Rust-Out': Causes, Symptoms and Cures

Medical Reviewer

Are you involved in a job that is unrewarding, repetitive and just plain boring? Do you feel restless, unhappy, stuck in a rut? Do you find yourself grumbling to coworkers, friends and family? If so, you may be experiencing 'rust-out'.

Rust-out is the term occupational psychologists give to symptoms arising from jobs that leave people feeling apathetic, disinterested and dull. Effectively it's the opposite of burnout yet some of the effects may appear remarkably similar. Productivity slows, mistakes increase and quality suffers - at least this is in jobs where such things can be seen or measured. Other jobs are mind-numbing, simple and repetitive and it may be harder to spot rust-out except perhaps from increased sickness and absence.

It may seem surprising that the common factor with burnout and rust-out is stress. With burnout there is simply too much stress but with rust-out there isn't enough positive stress to keep the person interested. Regular and sustained levels of boredom are actually highly stressful.

Many previously complex jobs have been unpicked within systems that involve flatter and less hierarchical structures. This has a couple of effects. The first is that opportunities for promotion become more limited resulting in often well qualified and highly motivated young people working in jobs where there is little or no scope for advancement and undertaking tasks that are unfulfilling and sometimes demeaning of their capabilities. Secondly, older people in more middle-management posts who find themselves unable to advance, simply find themselves going through the motions and counting off the days until they can retire.

The problem can be tackled from two directions. First, any employee who feels themselves underwhelmed by work can consider varying their own activities or approaching their employer to request new responsibilities. If, as is possibly the case, these simply don't exist the only real course of action left is to seek different employment.

A second possible direction for change is for managers to become more aware of the likelihood of rust-out in their organization. They might, for example, vary or rotate tasks in order to maintain interest. They might take the time to match employees to the correct level of job and to spot talent that might be languishing in some easily overlooked places. Involving employees in new projects, testing ideas and decision-making, helps them feel valued and useful.