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Rust-Out and Burnout: Steps You Can Take to Overcome Them at Work

You’re sitting at your desk at work. Time seems to be crawling by. The tasks on your to-do list are so dull that your eyes are about to glaze over. Yet at the same time, you’re also feeling exhausted and stressed out because of work pressure.

It’s like you’re stuck in a strange situation where you’re dealing with the eerie quietude of rust-out (lack of challenge) and the relentless storm of burnout (chronic stress).

“Work-life imbalance can profoundly affect your job satisfaction, productivity and overall quality of life,” said Renee Rogers, PhD, LMFT, a clinic manager with Banner Health. “It is why the World Health Organization has recognized workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon.”  

Whether you’re feeling uninspired or underutilized at work, or mentally and physically fried from work demands, you’re not alone. Many people find themselves at one end of this spectrum, and some — maybe even you — are experiencing both at once.

Read on to learn how to recognize burnout and rust-out, and most importantly, recover from them and find work-life balance.

Understanding burnout vs. rust-out

Stress in moderate amounts can be a motivating force that drives people to perform well. It can improve focus, energy and productivity. However, when stress is too much or too little, it can lead to burnout and rust-out. 

“Burnout is a gradual process that results from chronic workplace stress,” Rogers said. “On the other hand, rust-out arises from a lack of stimulation, meaning and challenge that results in boredom and disengagement.”

Burnout feels like you are constantly battling against a hurricane. Rust-out is like there is no wind in your sails – you are aimlessly adrift. 

Symptoms of burnout include:

  • Chronic stress
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism 
  • Detachment from work
  • Frequent illnesses, muscle pain and/or headaches
  • Irritable and angry
  • Changes in appetite and sleep habits

Symptoms of rust-out include:

  • Extreme boredom
  • Disengagement
  • Lack of motivation
  • Procrastination to avoid work
  • Changes in appetite and sleep habits
  • Depression

Who is at risk for burnout and rust-out?

Burnout can affect anyone but the risk is often highest for people in high-stress professions with exceptionally heavy workloads, such as health care workers, first responders and those in demanding caregiving roles.  

“More than half of health care workers experience job burnout – and this has increased as a result of caring for others during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rogers noted. “The continuous need to empathize with others’ suffering can lead to compassion fatigue as well as depression and anxiety.”

Rust-out can also affect anyone but tends to affect people in roles that lack challenges and opportunities for growth. People who hold jobs with repetitive tasks, underutilized skills, routine and predictability and limited creativity are more likely to rust-out.

Managing burnout and rust-out

Both burnout and rust-out can take a toll on your physical and mental health, but there are proactive steps you can take to address and prevent them. 

Rogers suggested it may be beneficial to seek professional help from a licensed behavioral health specialist as soon as you notice signs. 

“Don’t wait until you want to leave your job, are fed up or angry,” she said. “A therapist, counselor or qualified coach can teach you how to cope with stress, provide emotional support, help you develop long-term well-being strategies and prevent future burnout or rust-out.”

In addition, Rogers also shared the following strategies:

Simmer burnout

  • Take care of yourself: Make sure you’re looking after yourself and prioritizing self-care. Self-care can vary from person to person, but may include:
    • Physical self-care: Eat well, get some exercise and take breaks to relax.
    • Spiritual self-care: Embrace inspiration and engage in prayer.
    • Psychological self-care: Allocate time for introspection, journaling and therapy or counseling.
    • Relationship care: Maintain strong connections with loved ones and engage in activities you enjoy with others.
  • Find what’s bothering you: Try to understand what parts of your job are causing you to feel burned out. This may include issues with your actual work responsibilities and/or relationships with coworkers and others.
  • Get help at work: It’s OK to ask for help. Reach out to people at work who can support you and help you deal more effectively with the challenges you face at work and feel more engaged in your job.
  • Set boundaries: Create clear boundaries between your job and personal life. Make sure you have time to rest and unwind.

Prevent rust-out

  • Assess your job: Look at your current job and see if it provides enough challenge and stimulation. Think about talking to your boss if you feel like making some changes. 
  • Seek learning opportunities: Find ways to pick up new skills or knowledge that can make your job more exciting. This might mean taking on more responsibilities or getting additional education or training. 
  • Be creative: Find ways to add some creativity to your work. You can do this by brainstorming ideas, working on exciting projects or teaming up with your coworkers.
  • Set goals: Think about where you want to go in your career. Having goals that motivate you might make your job feel more meaningful.
  • Explore new interests: Find hobbies or activities outside of work that make you feel alive and give you a break from your regular routine. 


Burnout and rust-out can make you feel stressed, unhappy and exhausted. By recognizing the signs and causes of burnout and rust-out early on, you can recover and create a happier and more productive work environment.

Need help treating symptoms of burnout or rust-out? Call the Banner Behavioral Health Appointment Line at (800) 254-4357. 

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