Struggling with brownout: How can you prevent it?

Apr 30, 2024

4 mins

Struggling with brownout: How can you prevent it?
Daphnée Breytenbach

Journaliste freelance


Brownout syndrome can be dangerous for employees and businesses alike, as discovered by French occupational psychologist, Christophe Dejours, in the 1970s. Brownout occurs when we lose direction and meaning at work, and even though it’s talked about less than burnout and boreout, brownout deserves recognition in the workplace too.

What is brownout?

Brownout, also called “professional disengagement syndrome,” is characterized by a general lack of meaning in our work, particularly when we carry out non-stimulating tasks. Unlike burnout, where exhaustion comes from overwork, brownout occurs when we feel disconnected from our work and professional goals. According to a Gallup survey, only 32% of workers in the US are engaged at work, and an Ipsos report found that 37% of employees feel disengaged when they work from home. “I see disengagement at work often, even though good practices are spreading and companies are starting to pay more attention to this subject,” says Ariane Giannaros, a Paris-based consultant and therapist for managers and executives.

How is it different than burnout and boreout?

Burnout is a state of physical or mental exhaustion caused by tough working conditions such as loss of autonomy, lack of recognition, and work overload. Burnout is often caused by a high level of stress or chronic stress which can lead to symptomatic health problems like depression and anxiety. Boreout, on the other hand, results from not having enough work to do, leading to apathy and other symptoms similar to professional burnout. Unfortunately, brownout can be more difficult to identify. When we experience brownout, we’re unmotivated and “running out of steam.” We do our jobs mechanically and are unconcerned about quality. While brownout is more subtle, it requires just as much attention as burnout.

How does brownout happen?

Brownout surfaces gradually and is not always easy to detect. Unlike burnout, which can appear suddenly with exhaustion impacting work performance, brownout is stealthy. We may go about our work without experiencing sudden debilitation, but disinterest creeps in and leads to a loss of motivation. We start feeling useless and like our work is absurd; we begin believing that we’re wasting our time or that we’re not fulfilling our role. Brownout can also occur when there’s a misunderstanding of the hierarchy or fundamental values in a company.

This lack of motivation and feelings of uselessness eventually lead to disengagement. We’re torn between the need to keep our jobs and the thought of having to carry out non-productive, vain, and meaningless tasks. It’s important to note that there are potential consequences to brownout, such as decreased attention to our work as well as a drop in quality and productivity. We can also begin to experience problems in our professional relationships like isolation, aggressiveness, and cynicism. We question both our professional and personal lives and experience devaluation of our work and ourselves. We might also encounter sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, and frequent absences from work.

Who’s most affected by brownout?

Brownout is connected with the evolution of “bullshit jobs” or unstimulating positions which have only increased with the advancement of the internet and new technology. The sectors most affected are e-commerce, human resources, communication, and marketing. While burnout generally affects executives and management professionals, brownout mainly occurs among young, overqualified employees whose skills are underused in unrewarding jobs. Giannaros says, “The people most at risk are those who overinvest in their work and those who flourish when a lot is expected of them because they like the challenge. However, everyone has their limits and sometimes, they crack!”

Even so, this syndrome can affect employees in any industry. Although it’s less talked about than burnout, brownout is even more widespread. Another profile likely to suffer from brownout is someone who has chosen their career path from a calling. However, once in the field, they’re confronted with a reality far removed from their expectations. “There are also those who find themselves overloaded with tasks that lack variety, and after a while, they give up,” notes Giannaros. Brownout can also occur following a new job or a change in working conditions. This happens particularly in start-ups, where rapid changes require constant adaptation to new tools, processes, and objectives.

How can we prevent and overcome it?

Brownout is not only the result of poor working conditions, its prevention is often difficult to control. If you’re looking for a job, choose a company with a positive professional environment emphasizing communication, employee recognition, and personal development. If you already have a job, ask about the psychological support offered by your company. You can also give meaning to your work by creating professional goals and establishing clear boundaries between professional and personal life. “Employees who take pride in working hard at their jobs sometimes put their personal lives aside. However, to strike a balance, you have to ask yourself what matters to you outside of work and develop that side too,” explains Giannaros.

How to avoid brownout:

  • Understand your work goals. Ask your manager to explain your tasks and how they relate to the vision and mission of the company.
  • Diversify your work goals and make them known. Create variety in the type and duration of work you do.
  • Choose a company with horizontal management where collaborative work and the sharing of information help strengthen cohesion and involvement within the team.
  • Practice sequential project management. Ensure that one project is completed before launching another. This makes it possible to benchmark the success of everyone’s work concretely and avoids the feeling of diffusion. Be transparent about this with your manager.
  • Highlight your progress and results. Featuring progress points and concrete elements of your progress during presentations and meetings can keep you motivated. Do this with your coworkers too as it can be a positive cycle that could encourage your manager to take on a strengths-based approach.
  • Organize your meetings. The organization and timing of meetings can make them more effective, involved, and less time-consuming.
  • Develop healthy practices. Work on team building, mindfulness, and practical training in small groups to help strengthen bonds within a team and avoid feelings of isolation.

At the end of the day, communication between a manager and an employee is the most effective tool for preventing brownout. If it’s too late for prevention and you’ve already started feeling your work is meaningless, it’s important to talk about it. A great person to confide in is an occupational and organizational psychologist. “Seeking a professional’s outside perspective may be necessary to explore the place we give work in our life,” says Giannaros. “Generally, the best way to fight brownout is to reconnect with desire. It’s a comprehensive approach.”

Translation by Lorraine Posthuma

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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