From The Straits Times    |

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Have you heard of rust out? While many of us have probably heard of or even experienced burnout – particularly in fast-paced or high-pressure work environments – there’s a new lesser-known workplace phenomenon making its rounds: Rust-out is the overlooked counterpart to burnout, characterised by boredom and disengagement at work.

“Subtler and more insidious, one of the key indicators of rust out is the creeping sense of stagnation and monotony in your daily work,” explains Tuyen Do, the principal career coach at career guidance service The Happy Mondays Co. with 12 years of corporate experience, five of which in training and leadership development. “You might find yourself going through the motions, completing assignments without the creativity and focus you once had. Tasks that were once met with enthusiasm are now seen as a burden. This demotivation directly impacts your productivity and engagement, creating a vicious cycle that can be challenging to break.”

On the other hand, burnout is usually the result of excessive and prolonged stressors – high workloads, perceived lack of resources or support – leaving you mentally, emotionally, or physically taxed (usually a combination of all three!). 

Here, we ask Tuyen for more answers to find out more about rust out and how the phenomenon can impact us in the workplace.

What is rust out, and how does it differ from burnout? 

While both rust out and burnout can present with symptoms like exhaustion and the dreaded Monday blues, they stem from vastly different sources. 

Clients facing rust out might express feelings of boredom and disengagement from their work. They may say things like, “I want to discover what truly motivates me,” or “I don’t feel challenged anymore.”

On the other hand, burnout clients are more likely to emphasise being overwhelmed and depleted. They might say, “I can’t see an end to this” or “I can’t keep up with this pace.”

Left unattended, either situation can snowball and not only negatively impact your career progression but also your overall well-being. It’s like comparing the slow rusting of gears, to the rapid overheating of an overloaded engine. 

Are there any red flags that individuals should pay attention to in their job roles to avoid rusting out? 

Pay attention to your source of motivation. It’s a common practice for people to make career choices based on external motivators, such as salary, without evaluating how that fits with their internal drivers. 

Your work environment plays a pivotal role in your career satisfaction. If your workplace culture, policies and leadership don’t align with your needs and values, rust out can set in. 

While rust out can affect anyone at any stage, mid-career professionals are particularly vulnerable. Why? Because it’s precisely during this phase that one might encounter the perfect storm of external pressures and internal restlessness. You might have climbed a significant portion of the corporate ladder, achieved stability, and possibly financial security. However, if you’re not mindful, this can also be a phase where you keep pushing ahead without realising that what once excited you about your career is no longer there. 

Can you share some strategies and techniques for individuals to proactively prevent rust out in their careers?

When we see signs of rust out, we work with our clients to identify the root causes to help guide what strategy to take. So many people come to us at the point of rust out or burnout, and we find the common thread to be a misalignment between their personal values and their current job roles. This mismatch can often lead to feelings of stagnation and exhaustion.

Being deliberate in your career strategy and embracing growth are key to proactively preventing rust out. Remember, you’re in the driver’s seat of your career. 

If you find yourself in this position, we recommend taking  a step back and thinking about your strengths, and how you are or aren’t using them in your current role. We hear many people  say “but I don’t know what I am good at”, and recognising your strengths does in fact require practice and perhaps some external guidance. A simple starting point is to pay attention to what comes effortlessly to you. Sometimes, people overlook and underestimate what comes naturally to them, assuming that it’s equally easy for everyone else.

Embracing growth throughout your career also means continually seeking opportunities to expand your skills and knowledge and not being afraid to be uncomfortable. This could practically look like volunteering for a project, seeking stretched assignments, working towards a promotion or exploring a course that aligns with your long-term vision. Continuous learning is a cornerstone of career longevity and vitality.

Lastly, ‘work-life balance’ is not just a cliche; it’s a vital practice in rust-out prevention. Set boundaries, prioritise your self-care, and make time for activities outside of work that rejuvenate your spirit. Block out time in your calendar and treat it with the same importance as your other commitments.