Workplace ‘Rust Out’ Is As Bad For Our Mental Health As Burnout. What Does It Look Like?
Burning out results from being overworked and overstimulated at one’s job; rusting out is a result of being understimulated.
We’ve talked about burning out at length — especially since the post-2020 world witnessed people working through a deadly health crisis that some described as an “apocalypse,” leading one in every three Indian professionals to burn out. However, rusting out — the distant cousin of burning out — doesn’t make it to rants about one’s workplace nearly as often. But as we are beginning to dissect work cultures in a post-pandemic world — exploring the merits of hybrid models, working from home completely, and expressing dissatisfaction through “quiet quitting” — the phenomenon of rusting out is also making its way into our vocabularies.
It’s not just a precursor to burning out, as many believe; in fact, it’s the opposite of burning out, in a way. describing what it feels like to be rusting out at something that used to be her dream job when she started working there, Maeve, a woman in her late 20s, told Cosmopolitan: “I don’t get any feedback; I’m not involved in any projects. It’s almost like they’ve just decided not to bother with me. I dread starting work. It’s soul-destroying… I want to be thriving, I know that I am capable of so much more than this.”
In other words, she felt like she was stuck in a rut, with no room for growth or development. Rusting out is the “condition of being chronically under-stimulated, uninspired, and unsatisfied at work,” as Amy Beecha puts it in an article in Stylist. It is a state of disillusionment, and lack of motivation that can result from a feeling of being underutilized or unchallenged at work.
To put it into perspective, while burning out results from being overworked and overstimulated at one’s job, rusting out is a result of being understimulated — often, as a result of doing the same thing over and over again to the point where one struggles to find meaning or purpose in their work. But while burning out has been recognized as an “occupational phenomenon” by the WHO, awareness of its so-called cousin continues to be lacking. By extension, the impact of rusting out on people’s mental health, too, isn’t too well understood.
Reports also suggest that women tend to rust out at work more often than their male counterparts. According to Beecham, “unique workplace barriers that women experience, such as the double burden of paid and unpaid (domestic) work,” are to blame for this. “[They lead] highly capable and experienced women to return to work part-time, working at a lower level of responsibility after maternity leave, or even opting out of the workforce” — inducing dormancy and, soon, torpor and apathy towards their work. Further, persistent gender biases that prevent women from being promoted to higher positions can also contribute to women rusting out more, as a result of being stuck and unmotivated.
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However, as a phenomenon, this sense of stagnation isn’t new. Acknowledgment of rusting out — albeit not in those exact words — has existed for years through phrases like: “It’s best to keep yourself busy,” and “The devil makes work for idle hands.”
The burning (no pun intended) question, here, is what triggers rusting out. “The causes of rust out read like a checklist of modern workplace woes: the deskilling of once complex jobs, lack of empowerment, paperwork overload, endless meetings, repetitive tasks, and so on,” journalist Rhymer Rigby wrote in an article in The Guardian. “It can affect anyone but hits two groups particularly hard. The first is middle managers whose careers have ground to a halt; the second is the younger workers who, in more hierarchical days, would have been promoted, but in today’s flatter structures, are stuck.”
In 2013, David Graeber, an anthropologist, wrote a viral essay describing the rise of ‘bullsh*t jobs.’ While the article didn’t touch upon the phenomenon of rusting out per se, it came close to theorizing the reasons behind the pervasiveness of the experience. “The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger,” Graeber argues, positing that “There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting, will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.”
In a world where we tie our self-worth to our jobs, working at one that we consider meaningless can hurt our self-esteem — making one feel rudderless and purposeless, propelling one into a kind of desolation that mirrors the manifestation of rusting out on working professionals. As Graeber contends, “This is profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?”
“Rust-out is a lot deeper and more profound than boredom… [Its] mental impact can be quite dark. You can feel depressed — like you’re stuck in the mud, unable to move,” explains Teena Clouston, a professor in occupational therapy at Cardiff University, adding that the consequences can spill over to other areas of one’s life, too, resulting in “withdrawal and disinterest in our everyday lives outside of work.”
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These effects can also serve as strong indicators that one is rusting out — just in case they hadn’t realized it yet. Active disengagement from work — consistently, and even during one’s work hours — is a sign all isn’t well. “You might find yourself surfing the web a lot instead of working. Once rust out seeps into your private life, you may isolate — you find you want to be less social. You’ll want to stay home and binge-watch instead of seeing friends, or sleep — sleep becomes an escape,” Christopher Combs, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Temple University, told WebMD. “You don’t really feel sad, you just feel ‘blah’ gradually.”
You might be tempted to ask: if one’s work feels repetitive and monotonous — and is taking a toll on their overall quality of life — one can just quit and end the misery, right? Wrong.
Indeed, rusting out might seem like a first-world problem, compared to burnout — especially when we picture someone being so burdened that they can barely catch a breath, in contrast with someone staring longingly at the clock through their work-day while being seated in a plush, comfortable cabin. Still, experiencing either can have a dreadful impact on one’s life — making this a case of “different causes, similar effects.”
And despite their differences, the reasons people stay at their jobs, even after they’ve burnt out or rusted out, are much the same — financial constraints. Explaining why she hadn’t put in her papers yet, Maeve said, “I’m not in a position to quit. I have a mortgage to pay. I need a similar salary to be able to do that.”
From capitalist agendas to corruption, the woes of the workforce are, evidently, plentiful. And as we very well know, work-related stress can significantly impact our mental wellbeing. But a girl’s gotta pay her bills, too, as they say; and to do so, she must soldier on. As such, perhaps, the means to remedy this — or, at least, to alleviate the struggles of workers — lies in the hands of organizations. A good place to start is by prioritizing mental health in the workplace and creating a supportive environment for everyone to voice their woes — not in a bid to invalidate them, but to help them in a way that serves the interests of both the individual and the organization. Win-win, anyone?
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.