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Forget Burnout — This Is the Silent Career Killer You Actually Need to Be Worried About. Rust-out is the workplace phenomenon that's making us all feel uninterested and enthusiastic. Here's how you combat this stealthy career saboteur.

By Lissele Pratt Edited by Kara McIntyre

Key Takeaways

  • Rust-out is a subtle form of career stagnation marked by disinterest and disconnection, leading to professional dissatisfaction.
  • Women and entrepreneurs are particularly susceptible to rust-out, affected disproportionately due to longer stints in mid-level positions and the realization of an unfulfilling entrepreneurial path.
  • Combatting rust-out involves acknowledging the issue, discovering personal fulfillment and proactively setting goals and seeking projects that reignite passion.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We've all heard about burnout. It's that all-too-familiar sensation of being trapped in a never-ending cycle of stress, exhaustion and overwork.

But what if I told you there's something sneakier, stealthier and often more devastating lurking in the shadows of our careers? It's called "rust out," a silent career killer that thrives in the mundane, the uninspiring and the unfulfilling.

Here's the lowdown on this workplace phenomenon, what it is and how it differs from burnout. Let's explore why rust-out affects some groups more than others and provide best practices for managing and combating rust-out.

It's time to shine a light on this career saboteur and empower ourselves to break free from its insidious grip.

Related: 3 Insights From the First Large-Scale Study on Burnout and Entrepreneurs

What is rust-out?

Rust-out is the feeling of uninterest and disconnection from your work. It occurs when the tasks you're doing fail to challenge your skills and abilities, leaving you feeling listless, apathetic and bored. Some telltale signs include:

  • A constant sense of disinterest in your work.
  • Decreased enthusiasm for new challenges.
  • Frequent irritability with colleagues or tasks.
  • A perception that your daily routine has lost its spark.
  • A persistent feeling of professional stagnation and unfulfillment.

While we focus on avoiding burnout, we might unknowingly expose ourselves to the silent killer of rust-out — a career corroded by monotony and boredom. Rust-out may not scream at you like burnout, but its impact is just as devastating.

Who is most affected by rust-out?

Rust-out doesn't discriminate, but it seems to have a particular affinity for women. In an era when we champion gender equality and diversity, it's disheartening to see women bearing the disproportionate burden of its consequences.

While working in the city, I often felt the weight of an unfair burden, having to outwork my male colleagues for the same career progress. This sense of injustice can take a toll and gradually lead to uninspired feelings as if I'm slowly rusting away.

It's not just my experience. A recent study highlighted that women are consistently judged to have less leadership potential than their male counterparts, resulting in a 14% lower likelihood of promotion each year. Given that women tend to stay in entry to mid-level positions longer than their male counterparts, they'll likely eventually feel unchallenged and become less enthusiastic about their roles.

Additionally, what may surprise some is how common rust-out is among those who embark on the entrepreneurial journey. It's not uncommon for passionate founders to start with grand visions of building something exceptional, only to realize that they've inadvertently created a never-ending job for themselves rather than the fulfilling and liberating enterprise they had in mind. This underscores that rust-out isn't confined to corporate careers. It can silently affect entrepreneurs as well.

Related: How to Spot Entrepreneurial Burnout (Before It's Too Late)

Best practices for managing rust-out

If this is hitting home and you're recognizing the signs of rust-out, there's hope. Drawing from my experience as a mentor with Virgin Startups, here's the advice I offer my mentees grappling with rust-out. These proactive steps can help you regain your enthusiasm for your career.

Embrace your reality:

As the saying goes, you must understand your problems to solve them. Rust-out is no exception. It's important to acknowledge that sense of disconnection and monotony that seeped into your work. By recognizing this challenge, you take the first vital step to reclaim your professional enthusiasm.

One thing that really helped me was maintaining a work journal. Pouring your thoughts and daily experiences onto its pages can be a powerful tool for uncovering patterns and identifying the factors contributing to your rust out.

You can also talk to someone you trust — a friend, colleague or mentor. Sharing your experiences can provide valuable insights and emotional support as you navigate the complexities of rust-out.

Finally, take some time to reflect on your values. Are they in harmony with your current work situation, or is there a misalignment? This assessment can reveal whether your rust out stems from a values disconnect.

Discover what fulfills you:

Your self-audit isn't merely about identifying rust-out triggers; it's also an opportunity to unearth new interests and sources of excitement that can reignite your professional passion. So, why not add these newfound interests to your plate?

Sometimes, when you're deep in the throes of rust-out, it can be challenging to pinpoint what truly excites you. In these moments, take a step back to a time before you entered the workforce, perhaps even back to your childhood. What did you genuinely enjoy doing? Did you relish helping your family prepare dinner? If so, consider enrolling in a cooking class. Were you a passionate dancer during your school days? Maybe it's time to explore joining a dance team. And if, like me, you're fueled by a desire to help others, think about mentorship or volunteering as a way to reignite your sense of purpose.

Take charge:

To conquer rust-out effectively, you've got to seize the reins and take charge. Start by setting new professional goals that excite and challenge you. Seek out projects that reignite your passion, or consider whether changing your career path is the bold move you need.

Don't go it alone. Engage in open conversations with your supervisor or confide in a trusted mentor. Their insights and guidance can be invaluable in helping you navigate and control your rust out. Remember, taking the initiative to tackle rust-out head-on is a testament to your resilience and determination. You can transform this challenge into an opportunity for personal and professional growth.

Related: I Was Experiencing Extreme Burnout Until I Practiced These 3 Things to Come Out Stronger

Final thoughts

Rust-out may be stealthy, but it's not invincible. It's time to shed light on this career saboteur and take action.

Remember, your career is too important to let rust-out hold you back. So, if you're feeling like you're rusting out, this could be your wake-up call to identify areas that require change and embrace this discomfort as a catalyst for personal and professional growth.

Lissele Pratt

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Chief Growth Officer & Co-founder

As chief growth officer and co-founder of Capitalixe, Lissele Pratt helps companies in the medium to high-risk industries obtain the latest financial technology, payment and banking solutions. She was listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 Finance list in 2021 and has been featured in leading publications.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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