top of page

Rust Out: What does the Antithesis of Burnout Say About Experience

Bored man looking at a laptop

Rust out, as you can probably surmise from its name, is burnout's bored younger brother. Rather than going all out, embracing stress, and working to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, rust out is characterised by a more lethargic and unmotivated approach to work task. It's easy to see, therefore, the clear link to quiet quitting, another workplace phenomenon of conducting just the bare minimum of your job role. Rust out can have many causes, but the most common seems to be the feeling of being stuck, or not advancing in your job. Whether this means literally, as in career progression, or figuratively, where you feel as though you're doing the same task over and over to the point where all stimulation and connection to it is gone, it can feel as though rust is setting in.

From this definition, rust out may seem very similar to quiet quitting, so where do they differ? From many perspectives, quiet quitting appears to be a more active decision whereas rust out appears more passive. The outcome might be near identical when all is said and done, conducting the bare minimum to remain where you are, but the initial motivation might have been different. Where quiet quitting can come from value discrepancies between company image and actions, and - in particular - pay discrepancies, rust out appears to arise from prolonged brain habituation, the state where we become so used to occuring stimuli that we effectively zone them out. You can see the causes of quiet quitting as thing the employers are doing that the employee doesn't agree with, whilst rust out can be encouraged by the opposite. By just leaving our employees to their task and not noticing that the lack of new or different stimuli, not engaging with them in other words, encourages just that, to emotionally disengage.

This isn't to say quiet quitting and rust out aren't similar phenomenons. They are, but it is useful to try and understand which one may be the experience of the employee so it can be worked with accordingly.

As well as the consequences to business that lack of engagement can cause, it can also be mentally tough on your employees. It isn't difficult to go from feeling disengaged to a worse state. As employers and managers, we need to look out for our employees when it this situation. One way we can combat the experience of rust out harkens back to a simple but strong way of supporting the mental health of our employees:

Reach Out and Connect

Casual Discussion

The most straightforward way of discovering your employees' concerns is to ask them. Ask the people affected how they're feeling, and more importantly, why they feel that way. This can be done via a sentiment survey, but if you know the problem is something akin to rust out, reaching out in person is likely to be much more appreciated than a survey. This also applies to remote workers, perhaps even more so as we can't know how our remote employees feel unless on a call or chatting over a messaging app. Despite the lack of human to human contact, reaching out via video call to remote employees can still provide that valuable insight into what is working for them, how they're feeling, and encouraging a workplace culture of openness.

However, the above implies you understand who might be experiencing rust out. If this isn't the case, how can we find out?

Consider Various Means of Understanding Sentiment

Two colleagues talking in an office

Linking very much to the above, it is worth to gauge sentiment of employees in person. Known as Management by Wandering Around (MBWA), this practice involves management walking around their organisation to capture sentiment in action. This not only captures real sentiment but can also catch the cause of it. For example, watching employees have to wait for unresponsive computers to launch software provides concrete rationale behind any sentiment that might have been recorded. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Moss speaks of motivational hygiene factors in a business. These are factors that employees effectively expect in their workplace. We should note, Moss's article is discussing burnout. When there are negative hygiene factors in our workplace, they argue it can encourage the onset of burnout. However, the principle can still be applied to rust out. By carrying out MBWA, management can see the day to day tasks and equipment employees have and identify possible rust out factors before reaching out and discussing what could help the person figuratively move and shake off the rust that's building up.

Create Personalised Employee Experiences

It's been discussed before how we aren't going to solve burnout by introducing mindfulness programmes into our employees' schedules. But, just because it can't solve the more well-known workplace exhaustion, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For someone going through rust out, such programmes may be beneficial to supporting their mental health because it helps them to move again. However, it should be personalised to the employee. In an article by The Financial Times, Samantha Gadd, founder of employee experience consultancy firm, Excellent, believes that work-lives are structured in a 'one-size-fits-all' mentality. It is therefore important that, just as companies work to personalise the customer experience, so too should we do the same for the employee experience. If management can understand why employees are experiencing rust out and provide personalised experiences to shake the rust off, it can go a long way to ensure employee wellbeing, productivity and their desire to want to remain part of your company.

It's important not to ignore something like rust out. Whilst it can seem like another workplace phenomenon linked to low productivity, it can also be a very real symptom that leads to ill mental health. When people become bored and dissatisfied, it can spiral to thoughts of pointlessness and affect our happiness in our personal time. Where the subject of burnout often leads to mentions of going beyond employee perks and opportunities to tackle it, rust out symbolises it's absence. Whilst offering wellbeing opportunities may help lessen some mental health concerns arising from rust out, the more likely long-term antidote is for leaders to reach out and offer opportunities for professional or personal growth. Keep in mind, those who rusted and were still able to move probably resigned from the company some time ago. To borrow a German expression often used in rust out discussions, if you rest, you rust. For those remaining in rust quietly in your company, they may need a hand in moving before they move out of their current employment.


bottom of page