The term ‘burn out’ is widely known and perhaps now a little overused but ‘rust out’, the term occupational psychologists give to symptoms arising from jobs that leave people chronically lethargic and apathetic has received far less attention.
They sit at the opposite ends of the performance / stress curve but many of the effects feel remarkably similar – mistakes increase, focus is lacking and ultimately the quality and volume of work suffers. Without a sense of purpose and meaning it’s easy to become low and distracted at work, from here it can be difficult to find motivation and interactions with colleagues and customers are quickly affected.
Everyone needs a different level of outside stimulus and the same external stressors can have markedly different effects on people doing the same role. An individual’s resilience to cope with an increase or decrease in external stressors and then naturally return to the healthy balanced place of ‘optimum stimulation’ will also vary. It’s important for productivity and employee wellbeing for managers to have not just the awareness to notice changes but also the time to spend understanding the causes – whether someone is heading towards rust out or burn out addressing the issue early will prevent the dips in confidence and performance that are costly to reverse.
Many leaders are now alert to looking for the signs of stress from over stimulation but the effects of under stimulation attract far less attention even though they can be equally damaging. Research by occupational psychologist Dr Sandi Mann found a third of British workers found their jobs boring and he believes that the harm caused by boredom may exceed that caused by overwork. Unchecked under stimulation can lead to depression and in extreme cases physical symptoms. With the flatter structure of today’s businesses the opportunity for promotion can be limited; new employees who started with enthusiasm can quickly become bored and disillusioned, older staff without the stimulation of new challenges may find themselves disengaging – merely going through the motions and counting off the days until they can retire.
So what can you do to ensure energy levels remain high and employees feel engaged and purposeful? It’s a tricky balance but perhaps the most important thing is to ensure you’re not too busy to notice the early signs, spend time talking – be prepared to really listen, to find the aspirations and interests that may have become dulled by boredom or overwhelmed by work. There’s no quick fix but the good news is employees with ‘rust out’ will have spare capacity to train and develop new skills – by giving them attention and interest you might spot talents that you were unaware you had. Under stimulated employees frequently lack confidence in their abilities and ironically may be less likely to put themselves forward for additional responsibility, actively involving them in new projects can help to rebuild confidence and self- esteem.
Burn out and rust out are both extremes caused by long-term stress; the symptoms of burn out are exhaustion with rust out it is apathy and disengagement – learn to spot the symptoms early and you can find the ‘sweet spot’ between the two. In the real world employees will have natural highs and lows but build resilience and they will return naturally to working with creativity and satisfaction.
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