What is rust-out – and how to help your staff avoid it

You don’t have to burn out anymore – you could slowly rust-out instead, explains Nicole Kobie. Here’s how chronic boredom dulls the workplace.

Does burnout feel too dramatic for you, but you’re still not happy at work? Consider something a bit more boring: “rust-out”.

Burnout is when you’re physically or emotionally exhausted by work, often caused by long stints of overwork or intense stress. It’s a well-known workplace phenomenon – indeed, three-quarters of US professionals surveyed by Deloitte have felt burnout.

While it’s tempting to lump rust-out in with a bunch of other TikTok work trends, there’s something serious going on here.

What is rust-out?

Rust-out is burnout’s more insidious sibling: the dull day-to-day grind is wearing out workers, leaving them feeling unfulfilled, uninspired and unmotivated – it’s sometimes also called “bore out.” 

Coined by psychotherapist Paula Cole, rust-out is the result of chronic boredom and chronic under-stimulation – it’s what happens when staff sit and watch the clock for a bit of excitement. It’s not about one dull day, but a succession of never-ending dull days.

But rust-out isn’t just about boredom: it can also be the result of a lack of personal fulfilment in a role. Perhaps you’re doing tasks that don’t mesh with your personal values, or not making use of your skills or training. It’s sparked by the feeling that your work doesn’t matter and your days have little purpose.

Despite its name, rust-out can hit early career workers such as new graduates who are given little serious work to get on with. But it also impacts mid-career employees stuck in middle management, going to meeting after meeting rather than using the actual talents that got them promoted in the first place.

Rust-out can reduce motivation and lead to procrastination – one key symptom is spending all day on social media – but might only be visible through a higher rate of late starts and employee illnesses, in particular around mental health.

How to manage rust-out

What can managers do? As ever, talk to your staff to understand how they’re feeling, as this situation is difficult to spot: is it really rust-out or another workplace trend like quiet quitting? Perhaps they’re perfectly happy having little to do, glad to have a “lazy-girl job”?

There’s only one way to know what an employee is thinking, and that’s to ask them – but remember that an employee facing rust-out is already feeling disillusioned, so the effort may have to come from the manager’s side.

To battle rust-out, make work fun again – but not with ping pong tables or yoga classes. Instead, ensure employees have a reason to want to work beyond their pay by ensuring they have fulfilling, interesting tasks with a clear purpose. Some roles are dull but important; ensure staff know exactly how their toil has a positive impact on the company.

If roles can’t be rejigged to offer staff a more balanced mix of dull tasks with interesting work, consider offering opportunities to learn new skills or set aside time for their own projects, such as Google’s 20% rule. Or, allow flexible working – after all, workers needn’t sit and watch the clock when they’re keeping their own hours.

All jobs are boring some of the time. But if the work you’re offering is dull and uninspiring all of the time, you’ll have to make up for it in other ways – or risk churn, lateness and other symptoms of rust-out.

How not to manage rust-out

To finish, let’s consider one simple rule on how not to manage workers suffering from rust-out.

In short, avoid micromanagement! Using technical surveillance tools can make staff feel like they’re nothing more than a cog in a machine rather than an employee capable of creative thought with ideas. Instead, give them the tasks they need to complete and let them use their time how they choose; agency helps avoid rust out, as does time to work on their own projects.

People aren’t machines: if you treat them like one, they’ll rust-out.

Nicole Kobie
Nicole Kobie

Nicole is a journalist and author who specialises in the future of technology and transport. Her first book is called Green Energy, and she's working on her second, a history of technology. At TechFinitive she frequently writes about innovation and how technology can foster better collaboration.