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What does It Mean When Someone is Said to "Rust out"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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When someone rusts out, it means that he or she becomes bored in the workplace, ultimately becoming depressed and apathetic. As a general rule, once someone starts to rust out, the quality of work goes downhill, as the employee loses interest, finding the job unfulfilling. While this phenomenon is the opposite of burn out, the end result is typically the same, and it can cost a business a talented, once passionate employee. For this reason, employers tend to keep their eyes out for it.

This term appears to have originated in the 1980s, although rust out undoubtedly was occurring long before. It is common in older employees in middle management, as they plateau out and find themselves unable to advance. Young, talented employees with strong qualifications may also rust out if they are placed in positions which do not allow them to use their skills, as these positions can cause them to get bored and restless.

When someone starts to rust out, he or she loses interest in the workplace and coworkers. The sharp downturn in work quality tends to bring the attention of management to the issue, but by the time the employee's work starts to suffer, it may be too late. He or she may also be restless, depressed, or unhappy, expressing discontent to coworkers and friends. Often, someone rusts out when he or she feels like no progress is being made.

There are a number of ways to prevent rust out in the workplace. Keeping employees engaged with interesting and challenging tasks is an excellent way to prevent this phenomenon, as it encourages them to use their minds while also promoting the idea that they are valued in the company. Matching employees with the right jobs is also important; talented people should not be shunted off to corners of the office for menial work, for example, unless it is made clear that there is a possibility for advancement.

Some workplaces are simply boring by nature, because of the kind of work performed, and in these situations, it can be important for a company to recognize the risk of rust out, and to take steps to make the workplace more interesting. Cross-training employees for multiple tasks in the office, for example, is a good idea, as is soliciting ideas directly from employees to improve conditions at work. Sometimes small changes make a big difference.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By zeak4hands — On Sep 03, 2011

@amsden2000 - That's a very interesting idea. I think everyone gets bored with their job if they don't achieve anything. That's why gaming is so popular.

If jobs were like games are, no one would rust out. For example, Microsoft's Xbox 360 system gives you achievements when you beat something in a game. You don't get any new ability or anything -- just a little thing in your gaming profile that says that you achieved something special.

If my job was like that (I work at a accounting office) I would probably spend more time being productive, because I have a clear achievement to work toward.

I suggested this to my boss and his only response was that the world is a tough place -- he doesn't want to waste his time patting people on the back for every little thing.

I think people wouldn't rust out nearly as fast if they got little achievements -- people waste literal days of their lives getting gaming achievements, why not work achievements? How many people rust out from gaming?

By amsden2000 — On Sep 03, 2011

@minthybear19 - My sister is a programmer and is the weird combination of stressed and bored. She is bored with the projects she gets, so she gets depressed and doesn't want to work. Than the projects get behind and she gets really stressed because she knows she has to do the mind-numbing work.

I think that really smart people probably have a high rust-out rate. Most jobs out there just have you do the exact same thing over and over. Someone who is really smart like my sister isn't challenged, so they get lethargic -- knowing that they can do the work at the last minute because it's easy.

I told her that she might do better in the military or scientific career, but she has convinced herself that she's not skilled enough for it, because she's always behind.

It's a really ugly cycle and I wish that she would try something harder.

By MedicineBall — On Sep 02, 2011

I worked as a manager for a hotel for awhile and the rust out rate of housekeepers is amazing. I worked there for maybe a year – just over I think – and we went through a dozen housekeepers. They would start off strong and work great for a couple of weeks. Then their work would even out and they would get into a routine, cleaning a little slower than when they started.

After around a month, their work would start getting sloppy. They would show up later and miss a few things in their rounds. Once they start missing too many things, they get lethargic and leave.

The hotel was in a college town, but it was still weird to watch the same pattern repeat itself with almost every housekeeper. Even older housekeepers did the same thing. So if anyone ever manages a hotel, get ready for rusted out housekeepers.

By minthybear19 — On Sep 02, 2011

I think that a ton of the people that get "rusted out" are freelancers. I did freelancing for several years and still do a little. When I did website deign, I got really bored with it after a year.

Everyone I did jobs for wanted pre-made websites cut up and coded. It was mind-numbing work because almost all of the websites were similar in design.

Since the pay was mediocre and the job was boring, I hit a wall of depression. By the time I realized how much I hated my job, I was already on a downhill slant. So I stopped doing website cutting and switched to pure coding and form design. It's more stimulating and changes quite a bit with each form I make.

Of course, I hear that most programmers are in high demand and have very short lived careers. They get severe burn-out after only a couple years, quit their jobs and get jobs flipping burgers instead. Having a regular part-time job helps break it up. I work at a coffee shop too, so it keeps me from sitting in front of the computer all day.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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