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Rust-out is the workplace phenomenon making us all feel flat

Meet burnout’s bored, disengaged cousin
By Hannah Fox


THE VAST MAJORITY of us are familiar with the concept of burnout, especially those who work in fast-paced or high-pressure industries. But, according to experts, a lesser-known workplace phenomenon has now emerged: rust-out, burnout’s bored, disengaged cousin.

According to the entrepreneurial coach Eddie Whittingham, rust-out is commonly caused by “moving too slow” or being “still for too long”, whereas burnout is caused by “going hell for leather towards a goal”. Both can have value in the workplace, but a sustained and extreme state of either can cause problems.

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What is rust-out?

The hallmarks of rust-out are all-too familiar: feeling uninspired and uninterested, as a result of not enough stimulation and connection. It might manifest in a lack of impetus to tackle projects with the same energy, an irritation with colleagues, or just feeling that your day-to-day has become mundane.

We can’t expect to always enjoy our jobs, and it’s been proven that a robust work-life balance can protect you from burnout. But are we so focused on not burning out that we’re leaving ourselves open to monotony and boredom instead?

Emily Button-Lynham, who became a career coach after experiencing rust-out herself, confirms that it occurs “when the work an individual is doing is uninspiring and doesn’t stretch their skills or abilities. Individuals end up feeling listless, apathetic, and bored,” she explains. “While this is deemed a work phenomenon, the negative impact on the rest of an individual’s life can be huge and can lead them to feel stuck and unhappy.”

According to Button-Lynham, high-performing women are among the most likely to experience rust-out – and gender may play a part.


Why is rust-out more likely to affect women?

Countless studies have shown that women feel they have to work harder for the same career progression as their male counterparts. In Button-Lynham’s opinion, it’s this sense of injustice that may be prompting so many women to experience rust-out.

“McKinsey’s women in the workplace 2022 longitudinal study shows there is a ‘broken rung’ on the first step of the career ladder when it comes to women becoming managers,” she explains. “For every 100 men promoted there are only 86 women. Women can experience feelings of rust-out when they are working as hard, if not harder, than men, but not being recognised or being given the opportunities they deserve. This is even more stark for women of colour where only 5 per cent of C-suite execs are women of colour and for transgender employees where cisgender counterparts earn 32 per cent more.”

Whittingham explains that entrepreneurs are also at a higher risk of rust-out, due to placing increased pressure on themselves. “Rust-out is more common in entrepreneurs than people think,” he says. “It’s often as a result of starting out with good intentions of creating a great business, but then malaise sets in and they realise that all they’ve done is create a job for themselves – rather than build a business where they’re freed from the day-to-day monotony.”

When can rust-out happen?

In our never-ending quest for achievement, the onus tends to be on avoiding burnout along the way. But often, achieving what we set out to do can be a cause of rust-out, leading us to ask ourselves, what next? Am I successful yet?

“I was in my late twenties in a corporate career, where I’d worked my way up from graduate to director,” says Button-Lynham. “I thought I’d feel a huge sense of ‘success’ when I reached the director milestone, especially because the majority of my peers were men and 10-to-15 years older than me, but I didn’t. I was feeling unhappy and stuck in my career, which had seeped into all areas of my life – romantic relationships, friends, hobbies.”

For Button-Lynham, the antidote lay in getting professional help, which lead her to create a different definition of success. “Through working with a coach, I realised I was living a version of success that didn’t align with my values or what I wanted out of life. I’d gone from school, to college, to uni, to work without really thinking about how work should support me to get closer to the life I wanted to be living.”

With the right SUPPORT, rust-out can be incredibly USEFUL and LIFE-CHANGING for some people

But it’s not always an obvious lack of something that causes rust out – stress can cause it too, much like burnout. In Button-Lynham’s opinion, the pandemic (a common cause of stress for many) has been the catalyst for many of us to rust-out.

“I think [the pandemic] allowed people the time to truly understand what they value and what is important to them in life,” she says. “We began to value connection, family and relationships over and above climbing up the corporate ladder at all costs. With the rise of companies requesting employees to spend more time in the office, people are now becoming more boundaried about what they will and won’t accept.”


How can I manage rust-out?

Striking a chord? Don’t panic. There are ways of managing rust-out and channelling it in a helpful way, says Button-Lynham. In fact, rust-out can be a positive force for change if you’re open to it.

“Begin with self-awareness,” she advises. “Spend time connecting to your emotions and thoughts and identify any patterns or themes when it rears up the most. Once you have more of an understanding of what it looks like for you, then that can help you identify what needs to change.”

She adds: “It is showing you something about your career and life that is feeling uncomfortable. [Rust-out] kickstarted a journey of discovery for me.” If you’re feeling the same, try to reframe your bout of rust-out as an opportunity: it might just be the wake-up call you need.

This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR UK.