Understimulated and uninspired at work? You could be experiencing ‘rust-out’

Understimulated and uninspired at work? You could be experiencing ‘rust-out’

Written by Amy Beecham

Is micro-management, a lack of career progression and workplace boredom getting you down? The answer may lie in understanding the symptoms of ‘rust-out’. 

According to the old adage, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. However, most of us know that’s not strictly true. Even if you enjoy aspects of your job, it’s combined with stress and pressure, whether that’s urgency overload or feeling like an outsider in your workplace. Throw in a toxic boss and the rise of quiet quitting and it’s easy to see how just a few taxing elements can build into overwhelm and disillusion.

We know already that burnout is a giant generational problem impacting almost half of UK adults, but experts are also now pointing to a rise in ‘rust-out’: the condition of being chronically under-stimulated, uninspired and unsatisfied at work.

“Do you find yourself clock-watching as the end of the workday approaches, counting down until finish time?Are Monday mornings a particular grind as you find it difficult to motivate yourself to get goingbecause nothing feels challenging or stimulating? If so, you might be experiencing rust-out,” explains Sharon Peake, founder of gender equality consultancy Shape Talent.

According to Peake, when we are in roles that provide the right level of immersion and stimulation in our work, we experience a phenomenon called‘flow’, where the level of challenge of the work aligns with our capability and motivation and we become completely absorbed in our work, leading to a sense of wellbeing and positive energy connected with our job. With burnout,the demands of the role exceed our time, ability and resources, however, and when the demands of the role are lower than our skills and ability, we can experience boredom, frustration and, ultimately, rust-out.

Rust-out is also more likely to affect women than men due to the unique workplace barriers that women experience, such as the double burden of paid and unpaid (domestic) work. This often leads 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.

“Rust-out can leave employees feeling uninspired at work and stagnant in their careers, with repetitive meetings and admin taking a mental toll,” adds Becca Moore, associate director at recruitment consultancy Michael Page. “Our recent survey of 5,000 UK workers revealed that “a sense of purpose” was a key driver for happiness in the workplace (48%), but concerningly, just a quarter of UK workers (24%) say they are hugely passionate about their career.”

It doesn’t just affect our morale. As Sarah Markham, a workplace culture expert and founder of Calm In A Box, tells Stylist, when we lose a sense of purpose or feel our work isn’t meaningful, it can cause us to ‘doom loop’, when we repeat unhelpful stories about ourselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should fear every office lull and less-than-fascinating project. Most of us will experience some kind of tedium at work, but rust-out relates to chronic boredom that is so serious it can be detrimental to both your mental and physical health.

How to navigate rust-out at work

Last year, Gallop found that only 33% of employees feel like they are thriving at work. And with micromanaging bosses, the deskilling of jobs, unnecessary bureaucracy and fewer promotion opportunities, it’s easy to see why.

As Pearce explains, the impact of being under-stimulated at work leads to a lack of engagement, boredom, reduced workplace performance, and in some cases, it can even result in anxiety and diminished confidence as the individual starts to question their own capability. So it’s important to act as soon as you sense rust building.

Moore agrees: “When you start to feel the impact of rust-out, it’s critical that you act sooner rather than later. Think about: what are the tasks that you used to love doing? What would you like to do more of? What excites and challenges you? Set up some time with your manager to talk through the areas that you’d like to develop and anything that you might like to change.

According to Moore, being open and honest about what motivates you will help your manager delegate tasks and opportunities that better align with your goals and sense of purpose. “It’s a win-win, as they will end up receiving better quality work from you as a result,” she says.

“Finding ways to get better alignment between your capability and work challenges is key,” Pearce continues. “Could you get involved in special projects or assignments that will stretch you more? Sometimes extracurricular learning, such as a course of study, can help to provide the missing stimulus. But if none of this is right for you then it may be time to find a new job and workplace that better meets your needs.”

Images: Getty

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