Burnout or rust out? The differences, warning signs and what to do

Leaders are to blame if the latter has set in among their employees, says Audrey Tang

When we think of mental ill-health or stress at work, burnout naturally comes to mind, and this was the oft-cited word in September this year, when in the UK sickness hit the highest levels it had been for 10 years. Mental health issues were identified within the top four causes of sick leave – and indicated as contributing to the other top three.   

Burnout is not new. Since my PhD in 2012 focused on this topic, the problems are the same: people burn the candle at both ends – often because of extreme levels of pressure and demand – and many feel that there isn’t always the outlet or support they need when it comes to workplace stress. 

However, too much going on isn’t the only issue: too little can be just as problematic. A companion to burnout, rust out was the name applied to the boredom experienced by employees by Paula Coles (2019) when they do work that is “uninspiring and fails to stretch the person, so that they become disinterested, apathetic and alienated”.

Where burnout implicates systemic problems as contributing to the cause, rust out points the finger more directly. Why does something get rusty? While burnout is active – for example, trying to do more than is possible until there is no energy left – a rusty object doesn’t necessarily choose to rust, it is left to rust by careless owners.

As such, while there is a place for individual as well as systemic changes to address burnout, when it comes to rust out the role of the leader and the organisation is clear. As leaders it is important to be aware of the work that your teams are doing and ensure that it is engaging, meaningful and supports growth – as much as it can fulfil that criterion, or that opportunities are offered to increase those elements.

Herzberg et al (1959) used the term ‘hygiene’ with the same meaning of ‘medical hygiene’ – factors within a job that are needed to remove health hazards. These included:

  • Fair salary  

  • Status, supervision and security

  • Healthy relationships with colleagues and conditions of the working environment

For Herzberg, without fair pay, a healthy pace of work and positive relationships in an environment conducive to work your teams are also likely to become unwell. These hygiene factors are essential to avoid ill-being or job dissatisfaction. However, Herzberg added that there were a number of motivating factors that contributed to job satisfaction. These included:

  • Achievement and recognition

  • Opportunity for advancement and growth

  • Responsibility and meaning or enjoyment of the work itself

But these two facets are not mutually exclusive – one stops a team becoming unwell, the other promotes thriving.

The signs of rust out

These are not dissimilar to burnout as the stress response is often the same – it is just the cause that differs:

Psychological 

  • Irritability
  • Tearfulness

Social

  • Not voicing concerns or stopping talking to management despite an open-door policy
  • Refusing invitations, or alternatively going to all of them and perhaps over indulging in a noticeable manner (that differs from their usual behaviour)

Biological

  • Susceptibility to illness (often because of a depression of the immune system)
  • Other signs indicative of potential physical health issues

Practical

  • Not volunteering for something (again when they would otherwise have done so)
  • Consistently seeking things that would get them involved, when previously they have always gone home on time
  • Work that is not to their usual standards or missing deadlines (when they have otherwise been on time)

Verbal

  • Phrases such as ‘I wish I could just stop’ or ‘I just need to be somewhere else’. These are seemingly throwaway phrases but, if they are said often enough, this can be a prompt to ask: ‘Are you OK?’

All of these signs may be indicators of other issues, but they are also commonly related to stress.

Addressing the problem

Gen Z, people who were furloughed in the pandemic and those who may not get the chance to become involved in company culture, can find they lack an understanding about how the organisation, and sometimes the field itself, functions, which can limit self development and future prospects and impact enjoyment of the workplace. However, demanding people return to the office is not the solution – it is about providing the best experience when they are there.

Try assessing your level of workplace health according to Herzberg. For your teams, what is in place for the following?

  1. Fair salary
  2. Status, supervision, salary
  3. Opportunity for feedback and growth
  4. Responsibility, meaning, enjoyment
  5. Healthy relationships
  6. Achievement, recognition

Reflect on your current job offering to your teams:

  1. On a scale of 0 to 10, indicate the amount they experience any of those elements
  2. How can you improve lower elements – if only by one?
  3. Do it

Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist, mental health broadcaster and author of The Leader’s Guide to Wellbeing