10 Signs You're Suffering from Brownout

By Rhymer Rigby
Stressed? A still from The Devil Wears Prada. Picture / Supplied.

The idea of burnout at work has been with us for decades. But recently executive coaches and business psychologists have started talking about “brownout”, which is a sort of junior sibling. Staff affected by brownout become disengaged, demotivated and lose interest in their jobs.

As the name suggests, brownout is not as serious as burnout, but it is much more prevalent. The US coaching firm Corporate Balance Concepts recently looked at 1,000 executives. It estimated that 5 per cent of them suffered from burnout while 40 per cent suffered from brownout. Brownout can be fairly mild and is usually reversible, but in the long term can cause serious problems.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Michael E Kibler, the CEO of Corporate Balance Concepts, cited a chief executive who talked of being so overwhelmed by work that "sometimes... I find myself actually hoping I'll have a heart attack. At least it would be an honourable way out."

The more usual symptoms of brownout tend to be disengagement, discontent and lethargy. “You’re not interested in new ideas, you’re not proactive and you’re less communicative and sociable,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School. “You’ll use any excuse to not show up. A cold becomes flu.”

It’s not just work, either. Brownout will often spill over into your home life. You could become withdrawn and passive aggressive. Rather than wanting to read with your children and talk to your partner, you’ll flop in front of the TV and be sullen and indifferent to those around you.

The causes of brownout are much linked with the new world of work and changes that have taken place since the recession. One of the main factors behind it is very large amounts of rather dull work. In the recession, companies tended to either eliminate roles or not replace those who left. The extra workload was picked up by those who stayed. The trouble is this means the work isn’t challenging or stimulating: “You’re just overloaded by more of the same,” says Prof Cooper.

In a similar vein, the “delayering” that has taken place over the last few decades means that the traditional corporate pyramid often now has just four layers between the top and the bottom. Thus, the kind of incremental career progress our parents knew no longer exists. This is one of the reasons that brownout often affects those in their mid-thirties. When they started as graduates, they were shown a glittering ladder that could be climbed. Now, it barely exists.

Technology has played a role, too, by allowing work to eat into our home lives. With smartphones, we are often never truly not at work. Our evenings, weekends and holidays are no longer our own, so we never switch off and recharge.

All this leads to large numbers of people who are overworked but under-stimulated by it. Good companies, such as the famously innovative Swedish Handelsbank, recognise that something needs to be done, even within the limits of modern companies. A spokesman explains that staff are regularly moved between roles in the organisation - from head offices to branches and vice-versa.

But what do you do if you you fear you’re browning out at a less enlightened organisation?

Prof Cooper suggests that a first port of call might be going to your boss or HR department and saying that you need a challenge. As ever in these situations, it’s best to go to them with an idea, rather than simply stating a problem. You might say: “I’m really interested in broadening my experience, and would like to take responsibility for liaising with marketing on this project.”

If the matter is simply one of overwork, you could talk about workload. Again, the trick is in how you frame it. Rather than just say you have too much, it’s far better to explain that the extra work you’ve taken over the years means you can’t devote enough attention to really important matters.

Because brownout sits across the work-life divide, making changes in non-work areas can help, too.

“People who are healthier tend to be more engaged,” says Dr Peter Mills, an NHS specialist and medical director of the health insurer Cigna. While the relationship is not entirely clear, “trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and levels of activity is likely to help”. Thus, cycling to work may make you more positive about your job, even if your job stays the same.

Practice some electronic discipline, too. “Turning off devices an hour before sleep time will lead to a healthier next-day,” says Mr Friery. Similarly, being half at work via your smartphone at weekends or when on holiday means you never get the benefit of a full break. So, if you must check your emails during non-work days, do it once a day.

Ultimately, though, if your job has become become both stressful and stagnant you may be best looking elswhere. Here, Prof Cooper advises that you might try something different: “If you’ve been at a big organisation for years, you might try a smaller company which is riskier, but growing fast - and where your role may involve doing a bit of everything.”


1. You work long hours, but without any real interest in your job. The work itself is a dull slog and lacks intellectual challenge or stimulation.

2. You feel as if you never finish tasks. There's always more to do.

3. You no longer know where your career is going and don't make important decisions.

4. You'll use any excuse not to show up. A headache becomes a migraine and a cold is always flu.

5. You contribute the minimum in meetings and have little interest in new suggestions. You're the person who pours cold water on other people's ideas.

6. You check emails when you get up in the morning and in bed before you sleep. You are glued to your smartphone on holidays, on weekends and even during social occasions.

7. Family life is no longer what it once was. You come home late to watch TV and show little interest in your spouse and children. Friendships have withered on the vine and outside interests have been forgotten.

8. Physically, you've started to suffer. You're out of shape, you eat junk food, you don't get enough sleep and you've given up exercising.

9. You've lost your sense of humour and tend to passive aggressiveness and surliness. If anyone (in work or outside) asks you how things are going, you tend to snap or answer in monosyllables.

10. You don't hate your boss, but they're moody and unpredictable. You never know whether they'll like or hate a given piece of work.

The Daily Telegraph

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