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Audrey Tang

Wellbeing Media Ltd

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‘Rust out’ vs Burnout: What is the difference?

Today marks Blue Monday – a day labelled the most depressing of the year. Psychologist and mental health expert Dr Audrey Tang lays out the signs and differences between burnout and companion term ‘rust out’, alongside how to address these issues.
white and black car in garage. burn rust.

[et_pb_section fb_built=”1″ admin_label=”section” _builder_version=”4.16″ global_colors_info=”{}”][et_pb_row admin_label=”row” _builder_version=”4.16″ background_size=”initial” background_position=”top_left” background_repeat=”repeat” global_colors_info=”{}”][et_pb_column type=”4_4″ _builder_version=”4.16″ custom_padding=”|||” global_colors_info=”{}” custom_padding__hover=”|||”][et_pb_text admin_label=”Text” _builder_version=”4.16″ background_size=”initial” background_position=”top_left” background_repeat=”repeat” global_colors_info=”{}”]When we think of mental health issues or stress at work, burnout naturally comes to mind. Burnout was the oft-cited word in September this year when, in the UK, sickness had hit the highest levels it had been for 10 years.  Mental health issues were identified within the top four causes of sick leave – and indicated as contributing to the other top three.  

Burnout is not new, but greater pressures and an ever-faster pace of life mean people burn the candle at both ends. Many feel that there isn’t always the outlet or support that they need – or find accessible – when it comes to workplace stress. However, too much going on isn’t the only issue…. Too little can be just as problematic.

burnout and rustout result in similar symptoms as they are both causes of stress

A companion to burnout, ‘rust out’ was the name applied to the boredom experienced by employees by Paula Coles (2019) when they face “Work which is uninspiring and fails to stretch the person, so that they become disinterested, apathetic and alienated.” 

To borrow a model from trauma research and apply this thinking to the workplace, Dan Siegel described the state of optimal arousal that a person can function within as the ‘window of tolerance’. For Siegel, too much would lead to hyper arousal (eg. stress, anxiety – ie burnout), too little to hypo arousal (eg. depression and apathy – and a feeling of rusting out). 

In terms of the way they present, burnout and rustout result in similar symptoms as they are both causes of stress. Signs may include:

Psychological signs

  • Irritability
  • Tearfulness

Social signs

  • Not voicing concerns or stopping talking to management despite an open-door policy
  • Refusing invitations, or going to all of them and perhaps overindulging in a
  • noticeable manner (that differs from their usual behaviour)


  • Susceptibility to illness (often because of depression of the immune system)
  • Other signs indicative of potential physical health issues


  • Not volunteering for something they usually would – or consistently seeking things that would get them involved when previously they have always gone home on time
  • Work which is not to their usual standards or missing deadlines (when they have otherwise been on time)


  • Phrases such as “I wish I could just stop” or “I just need to be somewhere else” – are seemingly throwaway phrases, but if they are said often enough, this can be a prompt to ask “Are you OK?” 

All of these signs may be indicators of other issues, but they are also commonly related to stress.

Both can also result in sick days, quiet quitting (where only the bare minimum of the job is done) or simply – quitting! The problem for leaders here is that if people are seeking to change jobs it will be your top talent that moves on fastest.

‘No’ is a complete sentence and doesn’t need a qualification.

What can we do?

The difference is how burnout and rust out are successfully addressed. With burnout, finding ways to manage workload; improvement of the tools needed to perform the job; emotional support or resilience building may be of greatest impact. With rust out, re-engaging and inspiring teams is essential.

For burnout

Practice setting boundaries

If someone continually people-pleases it’s easy for them to become exhausted and resentful. Remind them ‘No’ is a complete sentence and doesn’t need a qualification.

If they are struggling try: 

  • Buying time “let me get back to you” or “I’ll check my schedule” as this gives time to consider if you really want to do it
  • Limiting time: “I can do it for 5 minutes”
  • Signposting: “I can’t but x can”
  • Asking: “What will be of most help to you that I can do” – returning the responsibility to the person asking.

For rust out

Focus on your team’s strengths over their skills

Professionals are good at a number of things because they are quick to learn. However, this can also mean they can become misapplied.

Both strengths and skills can be learned, developed and improved. But strengths make us feel great when we engage in them – skills, less so. 

If you are unaware of the difference, it is very easy to get promoted in a role which is not an authentic fit until one gets to the point where you reach the top of your game (so powerful is the dopamine hit of praise). But you don’t want to be there. 

  • Ask your team to consider all the things they are good at and get them to divide them into two columns. Things they actually enjoy and find energising, and things they can do but find exhausting. Then work with them in finding ways to better utilise their strengths.

In both cases, however, it isn’t a case of blindly following wellness trends, but asking teams what they really need.

  • Ask teams to identify their optimal conditions to thrive, and what supports them best when they are struggling. Use that information to develop a wellbeing strategy that is most conducive to those in your organisation.

Interested in this topic? Read Identifying warning signs: How to support HR leaders with burnout prevention[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section]

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Audrey Tang

Author and Trainer

Read more from Audrey Tang

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