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.