COVID-19, Telework and Rust-out: A risk for UN civil servants?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented numbers of people to work from home. But, one major disadvantage is "rust-out", which happens when your world of work changes and suddenly your role does not appear as critical as it used to be.

Nothing in this article is legal or medical advice. When in doubt review the relevant rules of your international organization, as rules vary, and seek legal advice. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented numbers of people to work from home. Some polls suggest that half of employed adults are currently working from home; over 70% of higher-paid professionals are now teleworking.

Working from home has some advantages: you can balance your work and family life; reduce your commute; and hopefully have a healthier lunch.  Your employer can reduce office overhead. Harassment and bullying may be greatly reduced when employees are socially distancing.

What is Rustout?

However, during this strange period, one major risk of telework is a phenomenon known as “rustout”, especially the longer the period of telework continues.

Rustout happens when your world of work changes and suddenly your role does not appear as critical as it used to be.

It is prevalent when staff members feel isolated, lack support or do not feel valued, have an unbalanced work-life or have a feeling that work has become monotonous.

Rust-out is the cousin of burnout, which in 2019 was classified by the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon .

Burnout is chronic workplace stress characterized by

  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism, negativity or increased mental distance from your job
  • Reduced efficiency.

Rustout is similar: staff members feel depressed or apathetic, leading to physical and psychological problems. Rustout has been described as disuse of potential.[1]

Traditionally, rust-out was prevalent in older, middle managers who were “running out of gas” and younger workers who were underemployed or underutilized. It was marked by a poor fit between a worker’s skills and job tasks, and unclear or dysfunctional job expectations. Rust out was discussed extensively after the implosion of the dotcom era and the period leading into the Great Financial Crisis, but it is relevant again during the so-called “New Normal” of teleworking.

Can I make a legal action about rustout?

It is challenging to prove that your employer is responsible for an occupational phenomenon such as rustout or burnout. Ordinarily, such requests must be supported by sufficient medical evidence, as well as circumstantial evidence showing that an organization has breached its duty of care. Burnout is only referenced in four ILO Administrative Tribunal cases as contributing factors to other medical issues that a staff member was facing and the ILOAT did not explicitly find the organization responsible for causing a burnout.

However, other administrative decisions, such as your manager's decision to reassign you to other functions or to change to your terms of reference may provide grounds for a legal challenge. In addition, where a manager or a colleague takes persistent actions to exclude a staff member to isolate a person from professional activities, undermines their work and unreasonably denies their requests for leave or training, this might constitute bullying or mobbing, a form of harassment. 

What can I do if I am suffering from “rustout”?

To be clear, rustout is not medical condition, although like burnout it may be an occupational phenomenon.

If you are having feelings associated with rustout, there are things you can personally and professionally to improve the situation:

  • Eat Healthy
  • Get Exercise
  • Get enough rest and make an enjoyable routine
  • Seek support & connection from colleagues and friends

At your work

  • Suggest that your manager vary tasks or consider rotating work so that you can learn something new
  • Proactively seek new opportunities to provide more input into work or new tasks
  • If new opportunities are not available at your employer, seek out new opportunities elsewhere.

In sum, if you are concerned that you are suffering from a long-term period of rustout, you can:

  • Take stock of your situation:  What gives you meaning and what are your values?  What do you need to do to align your work with these values? What are your resources? (Personal, Financial, Social and Self Confidence); What is the root cause of the problem?
  • Seek out the resources you need to address the problem.
  • Take risks and step outside of your comfort zone
  • Request your employer to provide you with support

[1] Leider, Richard “The Rustout Syndrome”, Training & Development (March 1995)