Have you gone rusty? Why you may have lost your mojo for work

If you feel bored by or disengaged from work, you might have ‘rust-out’. Here’s what causes it and what you can do to feel less, well, corroded.

By now, you’ve probably heard all about burnout, but what about “rust-out”?

It turns out that while they’re both common phenomena, they’re also very different.

“Burnout is when you’re stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted,” Beyond Burnout leadership and performance coach Sarah Vizer says.

“Rust-out is feeling disengaged, disinterested and bored, most often in relation to your job but perhaps about any aspect of your life, which can result in feeling lethargic and unmotivated.”

So, what causes rust-out?

When it comes to workplace rust-out, causes can include everything from not feeling value for or challenged by the work you’re doing, to endless meetings, paperwork and repetitive tasks.

Some research also suggests the Covid-19 pandemic has played a role, with 37 per cent of Australian employees agreeing they’re less engaged at work now than they were before the pandemic.

That doesn’t surprise Sarah.

“Working from home suited some people really well,” Sarah says.

“But for others, that shift led to feeling less connected to and engaged by work, and I think many of us are still struggling to get our mojo back.”

Why is rust-out a problem?

Given the fact that rust-out can lead to workers doing the bare minimum, it’s obviously not great news for employers.

But it’s not beneficial for the person experiencing it, either.

“Feeling disinterested, disengaged and unchallenged at work can mean we gravitate towards other unhelpful or unhealthy behaviours, like spending too much time on our phones or binge-watching TV as we subconsciously go in search of something to fill the gap,” Sarah explains.

How to feel less ‘rusty’

Sarah points out that, rather than always being troublesome, sometimes rust-out can serve as a trigger for change.

“I think we all naturally go through phases where we might feel disengaged from, or unchallenged by work, for example, which can help us realise it’s time to make a change,” she says.

The problem comes when rust-out turns into a longer-term experience, perhaps in spite of making changes to your work life.

Sarah says honing in on your sense of purpose, which can be described as that thing that lights you up or gets you out of bed in the morning, and taking action to nurture it, will help.

Research agrees, finding that having purpose helps us stay motivated, engaged and productive.

“And even if you’re experiencing rust-out at work, you can find and feed your sense of purpose, no matter how big or small it is, elsewhere in order for this to be effective,” Sarah says.

This may mean taking up a new hobby, volunteering or prioritising looking after loved ones – whatever it is that gives you a sense of purpose.

If all else fails, find a friend

If you are keen to foster a work-related sense of purpose specifically, but your job doesn’t intrinsically serve your personal one, the findings of a recent North Carolina State University study might help.

“Our study offers insights into what gives employees that sense of purpose and drive that can benefit their employers,” study co-author Professor Tom Zagenczyk says.

The results show that something called “organisational identification” is contagious.

“That’s important because it is well established that the more a person identifies with their company, the more likely they are to go beyond the call of duty at work,” Prof Zagenczyk says.

So, find a colleague who genuinely values your workplace and seems excited by their role within it, and try to interact with them frequently.

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Written by Karen Fittall.