Feeling overwhelmed at work

Rust-out can take the shine away from work

How lack of stimulation can impact workplace morale

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Feeling overwhelmed at work

If you are clock-watching because your job has lost its lustre, then you might be part of a growing workplace trend.

It is called “rust-out”, the slow corrosion of your mental well-being because of a lack of stimulation at work.

Not to be confused with burnout, which happens when we try to do too much, rust-out occurs when there is not enough to do or when the work fails to stimulate the worker.

Most people encounter boredom in their jobs from time to time.

Rust-out refers to a more persistent and harmful form of boredom that can negatively impact an individual’s mental and physical wellbeing.

Anyone can experience rust-out. It is especially common among graduates, who find themselves in positions that do not make use of their skills, and throughout middle managers whose careers might have plateaued.

Experts believe that increasing job insecurity is fuelling greater levels of rust-out.

Stuck in routine

In the past, many employees on the verge of rust-out looked for new opportunities to shine – either with their existing employer or in a new workplace.

But concerns today about a looming economic slowdown and accompanying widespread job losses have many workers choosing a safe option and staying in roles that fail to deliver the necessary stimulation.

The causes of rust-out are reflective of a modern-day catalogue of contemporary workplace challenges including the simplification of once-complex roles because of technology, a lack of empowerment, monotonous and repetitive tasks, overly bureaucratic procedures and a general lack of variety.

Just like burnout, rust-out can make us feel dissatisfied, stressed, anxious, unhappy and low in energy.

This cocktail of unpleasantness invariably impacts mental health and wellbeing and might also affect our long-term career prospects.

Although workers will never be “bored to death” – as the popular cliché claims – rust-out is serious enough for those suffering from the condition to frequently seek stimulation solace from unhealthy food, alcohol, drugs and even risk-taking types of behaviour.

The impact of rust-out is well-known, particularly among employers who at times have sought to induce employee boredom to their advantage.

Workplace impacts

To avoid paying out entitlements, having difficult conversions or managing performance, some employers try to place excess or unwanted employees in situations where they are required to complete menial tasks that fail to utilise their skills and knowledge.

In what amounts to a common though immoral staff cleanout strategy, those employees gradually lose interest, become disheartened and resign.

For those experiencing the corrosive impact of rust-out, speaking with an employer about possible new opportunities or projects – without coming clean about their boredom – can be a useful anti-rusting remedy.

And if new possibilities do not emerge from those discussions, then it is always possible and advisable to suggest some opportunities or ideas of your own.

As for our bosses, good managers will always be concerned with keeping careers well-oiled to avoid rust from forming.

This means ensuring that all work roles sit somewhere between over-work – on the path to burnout – and the sort of under-work that can create rust-out.