March 13, 2023 -- It’s Monday morning, and the thought of starting another work week could not be less exciting to you. You trudge to your desk, push yourself to complete a few monotonous tasks, then take an early -- and long -- lunch because what’s the point of doing more than you have to?
Does that sound like you? If so, you may be dealing with "rust out." It can happen when you become dissatisfied at your job, and it gradually starts to erode your performance because you simply don’t care enough to do your best anymore.
The sense of dissatisfaction that rusting out brings can start from what you perceive as negativity from your boss or from a lack of challenge or opportunity.
“Maybe you don’t have that much to do at your job, or you feel what you do isn’t important or creative,” says Christopher Combs, PhD, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "Some companies are simply not interested in helping their employees develop; they just hire people to carry out tasks to keep the company moving forward."
Rusting out is a common phenomenon in the U.S. workforce. According to a 2023 Gallup survey, 18% of U.S. workers report feeling “actively disengaged” from their jobs. The problem of workplace satisfaction and mental health is so concerning that the U.S. Surgeon General recently issued a report on it. The report outlines a framework for optimum mental health and well-being; one key segment specifically finds that knowing you matter at work lowers stress.
The COVID-19 pandemic also has a strong connection to the problem. A new study from the University of Washington School of Medicine found that 51% of surveyed workers said that COVID-related stress in the workplace made their work quality decrease, and that they felt emotionally exhausted, enjoyed their work less, and felt less of a sense of personal accomplishment on the job. Another recent large-scale study found that the pandemic caused workers to fear catching the virus to the point where they suffered reduced job satisfaction. All in all, stressful working conditions can significantly impact employees’ emotional state and performance.
What Are the Symptoms of Rust Out?
Creeping disinterest in your work is number one.
“Signs can include feeling disengaged,” says Combs. “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.”
And this kind of mood shift can quickly become a habit.
“The key is to look for changes in personal sleeping, eating, and socialization patterns over a period of time, like a week or two. Are you able to bounce back after a night of sleep or after a brisk walk?” says Amy Cooper Hakim, PhD, a workplace expert and management consultant in Boca Raton, FL, and the author of Working With Difficult People. If the answer is no, that’s a clear indication of rust out.
You might also experience physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches.
"You don’t really feel sad, you just feel 'blah' gradually,” says Combs.
What’s the Difference Between Job Rust Out and Job Burnout?
Although burnout can also cause feelings of emotional exhaustion, it’s caused by working too hard or too long. Rust out invades your psyche because you aren’t engaged enough in what you’re doing. You also may not feel valued for the work you do manage to contribute.
“Rusting out is related to ‘quiet quitting,'"says Combs. “You might come to think, 'What’s the least amount of work I have to do to get paid?’”
Rust out and burnout can make you feel undervalued, which can undermine your self-esteem.
“One sign includes not feeling like the work you do has meaning,” says Larissa Barber, PhD, associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University’s College of Sciences. “You’re questioning whether the work you do really matters or makes an impact. You may also feel helpless about how to improve or make changes. You may think you don’t have the ability to do your work well anymore, or even learn new skills that you need to succeed.
Can Rust Out Turn Into Depression?
If it’s hard to focus because you’re ruminating about how unhappy you are at work, pay attention.
“Consistent trouble concentrating and making simple decisions can indicate that you’re experiencing something beyond short-term disengagement,” says Cathleen Swody, PhD, an organization psychologist and adjunct professor of management at the University of Connecticut’s School of Business in Storrs, CT.
And if rust out isn’t addressed, your co-workers and supervisors will notice a change in your work performance.
Swody says the key sign that it’s time for professional support, such as a licensed therapist, is if negative feelings are getting in the way of daily functioning.
It may help to try some self-care on your time off. Enjoy a long hot bath or indulge in a good meal, and see if that recharges your batteries.
“If you are not acting or feeling the way that you normally do after a lazy weekend day, or if you can’t bring yourself to get to the office on time, or you can’t complete your work like you normally would, then it may be appropriate to get help,” says Cooper Hakim. “Sometimes, just talking to a mental health professional can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness.”
What Can You Do to Solve Rust Out on the Job?
First, reawaken your personal passion. Try a new hobby at home, which might help you to feel a sense of excitement you may be able to transfer to your work life. Then, make a list of three ways you think you could contribute something fresh to your company.
Combs suggests talking to your manager to see if you can rotate responsibilities or if you can take on work that interests you more. Taking a course, either through your company or on your own, can also reset your motivation.
“If you feel like you’re stuck, further develop your skill set,” Combs continues. This could also help you find another job if you choose to make a fresh start.
The bottom line: you can conquer rust out.
“People who are thriving at work feel energetic and excited,” Barber says. "Be proactive about what you really want, and you can enjoy your career and accomplish more than ever."