If burnout was the disease of the dotcom era, rust-out may be the epidemic of this more sober decade. The term has been used since the 1980s to describe workers who waste away, unchallenged and uninspired, at their desks. But today, the phenomenon is rampant. Amid downsizing and delayering, most employees face both fewer opportunities for promotion and little hope of escape to some new employer.
Tom McPate, occupational health manager at Sainsbury's, the British food retailer, has spent the last few years studying rust-out. The symptoms, he says, are alarmingly similar to burnout: depression and apathy, which can lead to both physical ailments and psychological problems.
Rust-out is most common among older workers—middle managers who have run out of gas. But there's another group suffering rust-out in this economy: young, over- qualified workers stuck at first base in undemanding jobs. "There's a lack of fit between education and the workplace," says Arne Kalleberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina. "We saw it first in the 1970s, and now it's back. The explosion of educational achievements has created [a corresponding] burst of underemployment."
Here's what managers and employees can do to combat rampant rust-out in their organizations.
1. Spot it
Perform stress audits and appraisals regularly. "The best companies survey employees only once every few years. Yet they survey finances monthly," says Larry Murphy, psychologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
2. Prevent it
Match the right people to the right jobs; it's poor job fit that saps satisfaction and productivity. "Employers must decide whether to spend more money on better screening of applicants or end up spending it on health care," says Kalleberg.
3. Lead it
Leaders are responsible for a culture that allows rust-out—or one that immunizes organizations against it. "The art of leadership is keeping the tension between too little and too much stress," says Richard Leider, founding partner of the Inventure Group.
4. Confess it
Consider your own actions and attitudes. If you sense the beginnings of apathy or cynicism, ask for help. Choose your own "board of directors," suggests Leider—friends or colleagues who offer sage perspective and can ignite a spark.
5. Risk it
Revisit your purpose at work and your definition of success. It could mean something less or something more than a promotion. Then start taking risks again. Try new techniques, work with new people, and "repack your bags," advises Leider.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.