Originally published in Idler 61.
Thanks to my tenuous association with workplace psychology, I was invited to attend a managerial conference in a corporate hotel on the sunkissed banks of the M8. It was always going to be dreadful, but I attended out of anthropological interest and also because I thought there might be some free wine to be had. There was no wine, only orange juice, but I found the strength not to tear the place to pieces.
My souvenir of the day (or my “take-home” as these managerial types strangely say) was a single word: “rustout”. In contrast to the more familiar “burnout,” when a wage slave’s head pops from having too much to do, “rustout” is when he or she simply decays, physically and spiritually, because of boredom.
At first, it looks like just another pro-work idea. It makes me think of a Thomas the Tank Engine character who, not one for pulling carriages all day long, stays in the engine shed and falls to rust. “It’s train cancer, Percy,” says the Fat Controller, “and wholly deserved.” That is surely the intended implication of this “rustout” and apparently the word comes from a German expression that “he who rests, rusts.”
But what caught my attention is the distinction between burnout and rustout, partly in its own right as an observation of the two ways a job might destroy the soul, but also the that the managerial creed know about this, its headmen perceiving two diagnosable workplace conditions.
Unfortunately, the treatments they’re currently peddling leave a much to be desired. The working theory is that while burnout comes from too much stress, rustout comes from too little. Give the rusting worker more to do, they say.
My own experience tells me that office rustout comes not from being unstressed but from not valuing the mission of work full stop. It comes from knowing that no matter how you slice it, the whole thing is ultimately a waste of human life and you’re only there because there’s rent to pay. Boredom springs from the fact that office life doesn’t — can’t — provide spiritual rewards for a moist, creative, human brain. It’s not even supposed to. It’s an economic arrangement.
Under these conditions, even when you’re challenged by quantity or quality of your tasks, the challenge only exists within the meaningless confines of the Holodeck of the workplace. So how can one really escape rustout?
Don’t go to work in the first place. There are many ways to avoid reporting to a job every day, some of which have been covered in previous editions of this column. Avoid jobs wherever you can as, in the modern age, they are uniformly unsatisfying. Never accept a job and you’ll never experience rustout. With so much to do and experience, rustout does not happen in the real world.
If you must go to work, use your time at the desk to plot your escape. Instead of fantasising about a lottery win or a distant pension like other wage slaves, actively plot your escape. Consider self-employment, creative practice, reducing expenses and saving the difference to bring retirement radically forward; plot the steps you’d take to get such a project of the ground. A sitting position with the access to the Internet and a notepad to hand is no bad starting point for an escape attempt. The very act of finding moments at work in which to do this without the knowledge of one’s supervisors will keep things interesting and help to avoid oxidation.
Work part-time. Find a way (see this column in Idler 53) to reduce your employment to three days instead of five. Embrace minimalism and the anti-consumerist mindset so that you can afford the reduction in income. A three-day work week is not so bad: you have the novelty of a first day in the office after a long weekend, the relief of a hump day, and then the Friday Feeling before another long weekend. The diversity of feeling along your three days and the reduction in resentment about the work’s infringement upon one’s life will help you to avoid becoming a rusting shed engine.
Lead a good life outside work. Harry Hill once said a bizarre thing to a heckler, a retort now famous among comedians. He said “You say that to me now, but I know that when I get home, there’s a nice roast chicken in the oven.” What he meant is that he’s got other stuff going on, a private treat waiting for him outside his rather silly job. It’s easy to fall into a cycle of returning from work at 6pm to nothing but television and some utilitarian cookery before the desperate need to sleep. This is a considerably rust-promoting pattern and it’s a life your managers and employers are perfectly happy for you to lead, regardless of any noise they like to make at conferences about reducing rustout. Defy them.
Despite learning of the condition they’ve dubbed “rustout,” the solution proffered by office managers is to pile more work onto the bored wage slave, to find a balance between explosion and implosion. What kind of a world is that? Escape it.