5 Actions To Address Rising Productivity ‘Rust-Out’ Among The American Workforce

With the message that mental health is something everyone should care about, since 1949 the United States has designated every May as Mental Health Month. This year’s theme is “Look Around, Look Within,” reminding us that many factors in the workplace come into play when it comes to mental health conditions. Amid layoffs and shrinking the workforce, leaders are grappling with how to solve the problem of dropped productivity and what they call “rust-out” among employees.

Gallup’s 2022 global workplace report, for example, showed that only 21% of the American workforce feel engaged in their jobs. On the surface, rust-out has some of the symptoms of burnout such as loss of interest or personal meaning in the job which impacts engagement, performance and mental health. But rust-out is the opposite of burnout—when work is monotonous, and employees feel underutilized or under stimulated in their positions.

Recent Study On ‘Rust-Out’

An April, 2023 survey of over 1,000 U.S. knowledge workers by mmhmm found that 67% said they have experienced rust-out all or some of the time in the past year, and 72% said they have left or would leave a job from feeling rust-out. And it’s not whether you work remotely or on-site. The study found that productivity can’t simply be linked to remote or in-office work. It was a wash-out with 43% of respondents saying they feel most productive working in the office and 42% most productive working from home. Younger workers (between the ages of 25-35) are particularly sensitive to feeling underutilized or under stimulated, and 80% would leave or have left a job over it. Furthermore, 40% of workers expressed a lack of enthusiasm—which can spread quickly within a company—admitting they’re at their current job for the paycheck rather than because they find it fulfilling.

How Employers Can Mitigate ‘Rust-Out’

The survey found that the true antidote to rust-out is autonomy and flexibility. When employers give workers autonomy to manage their workloads, 60% are more productive. And 51% of employees said being allowed to work asynchronously or to set their own schedule helps them be more productive. Five key suggestions emerged from the study to address rust-out:

  1. Provide flexibility and check in with employees on where they work best instead of calling workers back into the office.
  2. Re-imagine fewer and better meetings: 60% say meetings are productive when the majority of people in the meeting actively contribute, and 58% believe meetings are productive when they’re focused on brainstorming or coming up with new ideas. Moreover, 65% want fewer meetings because they aren’t productive, yet only 27% report their company reduced the majority of meetings they are scheduling in the past year.
  3. People who feel like they’re rusting on the job can share with their managers, look for a new role and re-inject enjoyable activities into their personal life.
  4. Spot rusty workers and help them speak up and co-develop a progression plan.
  5. Reform how teams are communicating to empower employees and increase productivity.

Dr. Tamara Beckford, chief executive officer at UR Caring Docs, lists five additional actions leaders can take to address rust-out:

1. Set challenging and meaningful goals.

2. Provide opportunities for learning and growth.

3. Offer job rotation or cross-training.

4. Recognize and rewarding accomplishments.

5. Ask their team, “What are you interested in?” and “How can I help?”

Mekayla Castro, head of curriculum Praxis Labs, reflects on positive steps to build workplace connections and a sense that we’re in it together. “Something that’s just basic but really important is to ensure that everyone knows about the resources and programs available to them in the organization to support their well-being,” she points out in an email to me. “Perhaps leaders can speak to how they have used those resources and share what it was like to take advantage of them—again, showing the kind of human touch that can ultimately build trust within an organization.”

Christina Maslach, also from Praxis Labs, shared with me the dangers of job mismatch and burnout. “Two of these potential areas of mismatch are workload and fairness—‘workload’ is feeling like you have too much on your plate and not enough resources to complete your tasks, while ‘fairness’ is the sense of decisions not being made in an equitable way.” she acknowledges. “Why should a manager care about all this? Simple: neglecting workplace mental health will impact productivity. Thinking about the work environment over the last couple of years, many people have felt their workload has increased, and they don’t have sufficient resources to be effective. When it comes to fairness and any season of layoffs, questions will be asked about the decisions behind these restructuring efforts. All of this can lead to feelings of burnout that we should be concerned about. If leaders aren’t looking to spot this, in May or any month, there are clear health, psychological and job-related consequences. When people’s health suffers, they’re more likely to miss work or need to take time off, which can impact productivity of the team. Then there’s the cost of people feeling dissatisfied at work—so, experiencing low morale and disengagement. Again, that impacts your overall productivity and, so, ultimately, your profitability.”

Maslach says if she were to “look around” as Mental Health Month is inviting her to do in May, she spots lots of things that all of us should be doing to improve workplace mental health. And if she then ‘Looks Within,’ she says she knows that it’s when she feels socially connected, supported by her company and aligned with what it’s trying to achieve that many of her own work-related anxieties and fears are minimized. “That’s the kind of balance I think we should all be looking to see more of in HR—in May and long, long after,” she concludes.