All of us want to enjoy happy, productive and fulfilling working lives. But all too often, complexity and stress gets in the way. At its most extreme, acute stress - prolonged pressure which is beyond our capacity to cope with - can lead to burn-out. But much less spoken about, yet just as destructive to our well-being, is under-stimulation, what I term ‘rust-out’.
Rust-out can creep up on people who suddenly find themselves without much to do. That might happen for a few reasons. You might find that after a consultancy project, you’re ‘on the bench’ for a few weeks or months. You might find that you join a new company and that it takes a while to get inducted and up-to-speed. Or you might face a longer period of inactivity; perhaps your skillset or role isn’t required in your department or region, raising the prospect of a move to a new location or even redundancy.
To understand why under-stimulation can have an impact similar to burn-out, it’s important to explore what helps us remain psychologically healthy. And as it turns out, a little bit of stress is often a good thing.
Psychologists Leo Hendry and Marion Kloep argued that how we develop depends on the challenges we face in life – things like a promotion, a new project or the breakdown of a relationship with someone. Our responses to these challenges, and how we grow from them, depend on the kinds of resources we have access to - our self-esteem and confidence, financial resources or our professional network, to name but a few.
If we face substantial challenges but lack sufficient resources to meet them, we can become anxious, depressed and can break down psychologically, leading to burn-out. So high demands + few resources = burn-out.
Conversely, if we face few challenges but have lots of resources at our disposal, we can stagnate, lose our sense of purpose, become anxious and despondent and so rust-out. So low demands + high resources = rust-out.
What’s also crucial is that this state can persist if someone lacks the resources needed to seek out new challenges that they can apply themselves to. In short, they’re in a hole and don’t know how to get out of it!
It’s important to stress that rust-out, like any kind of emotional issue, can occur in varying degrees. It can be mild, short-lasting and not cause many problems; or it can be severe, prolonged and have a major impact.
Keeping the rust at bay
The ideal, then, is to have enough challenges, with sufficient resources to meet them. Someone who finds their way into that zone can deal with what life throws at them while gaining experience and confidence and so developing as a person.
So bearing that in mind, when change occurs in your organisation that means you or your team may have to cope with some time away from client-facing work or projects, keep an eye out for signs of rust-out. These may include: agitation, lack of motivation or energy, low mood, anxiety or feelings of tension, complaints of feeling bored or that skills are not being used, staff sickness, lack of engagement in work, worrying about the future or withdrawal from activities previously enjoyed.
If that sounds like someone you work with, consider opening up a conversation with them about how things are going for them. Be curious, but don’t judge or make assumptions. If you suspect that they are rusting-out, explore what they want from their work, what gives them meaning and a sense of purpose in their professional life. What would they ideally want to be doing, with whom, where and when?
If you’re feeling rust-out yourself, consider how long it is likely to last. Is it a brief lull that will end in the coming weeks or months, or is it likely to be a prolonged period of under-activity?
If it’s likely to be a brief period of rust-out, consider what activities you gain a sense of meaning and purpose from in the workplace. What are they, and who do you need to speak to/what do you need to do to facilitate doing those things?
If it’s likely to be a more prolonged rust-out, take stock of your resources (financial, social, life experience, confidence). Ask yourself what gives you a sense of meaning and purpose in your professional life and what is important to you. Consider what types of professional activities involve these values. What resources would you need to help you move into that? It might be broadening your professional network, going on a training course or improving your confidence levels. What can you do to achieve that?
Sanity at work. Is that really possible? In their new book, Staying Sane in Business, Chris Welford and Jackie Sykes shed new light on the factors contributing to our psychological wellbeing and personal effectiveness at work drawing on insights from the dual disciplines of psychology and psychotherapy.
Make sure that the resources you provide (or seek for yourself) fit your need. In other words, you need to base your actions in a good understanding of the problem you face. So for example, if a colleague is feeling rust-out because of a lack of challenge in their role, a pep talk to try to boost their confidence might not be the most helpful thing. To build this kind of understanding takes time, a good collaborative relationship and genuine curiosity.
If it’s you that’s feeling a sense of rust-out, reflect on what resource(s) you’re lacking and consider what you need to address that problem. Don’t waste time and money investing in solutions that don’t address the root cause.
Finally, consider whether you might need outside support. For example, does one of your team members seem to have some problems with a lack of confidence or self-esteem that requires more specialist help? Consider whether coaching or psychological therapy may be a helpful tool to address rust-out and how you might be able to facilitate access that support. Sometimes expert input is required, and identifying that need earlier can prevent the problem deteriorating still further.