The family of psychosocial risks (PSRs) is constantly growing. Scientific research and occupational medicine have noted the emergence of new mental and psychological pathologies at work year after year. The psyche of people is put to the test by the business world.

Download our guide to preventing brown-out:

What is brown-out?

Less well known than burn out or bore out, brown-out is a phenomenon that originates from an English expression describing the lowering of the intensity of electrical appliances in order to avoid overheating. The concept was first mentioned in 2013 by the American anthropologist David Graeber.

Definition of brown-out

Brown-out is one of the most common problems in the professional world. It manifests itself in the inability of employees to perform their work. It is a form of depression at work, which is reflected in the lack of energy, motivation, and self-confidence. The employee completely loses the meaning of work and no longer knows what his or her place is in the company. They mentally resign from their position.

Dr François Baumann, a specialist in pathologies linked to suffering at work, gives a definition in his book entitled: “Brown-out: when work has no longer meaning”

It expresses the pain and discomfort felt as a result of the loss of meaning of our work objectives and the complete misunderstanding of our role in the company’s structure.

Is brown-out an occupational disease?

This syndrome has no medical definition and is not recognised as an occupational disease. Like burn-out, it does not appear in the INRS table of occupational diseases. Unlike burn out or bore out, there is currently no case law or medical criteria recognising this pathology as an occupational disease.

Difference between burn-out, bore-out, and brown-out

The brown-out syndrome is to be distinguished from burn-out and bore-out. Indeed, this psychopathology does not impact the employee’s capacities. Contrary to bore out, which is exhaustion due to boredom, and burn out, which causes extreme fatigue due to the amplitude of professional tasks. Brown-out leaves the employee alert and capable, but totally unmotivated and disengaged, and no longer finds any meaning in their job.

Who is affected by brown-out?

A study carried out by Kantar TNS for Randstad in 2018 reveals that 18% of French people perceive neither the meaning nor the usefulness of their job. This survey reinforces the one conducted by Deloitte in 2017 showing that 55% of employees feel that their work has lost its meaning in recent years.

Like all other mental illnesses, brown-out concerns all employees of a company. This is all the truer with the Covid 19 crisis. The search for meaning will become a major challenge for companies.

Syndrome du Brown out

However, certain profiles remain more exposed than others. In particular, there are over-educated employees with under-utilised skills in jobs that are not very rewarding in relation to their potential. They perceive their work as “degrading” in relation to their knowledge and experience.

There are also managers who have to perform tasks that are in contradiction with their personal ethics. This psychological disconnect can create anxiety and even depression.

Let’s take the example of John, the financial director of a company. His job is to put pressure on the lower levels of the company while cutting budgets. By achieving his budget-cutting targets, John receives target bonuses. He is in total contradiction with his personal ethics. This creates a feeling of unease and a lack of understanding of his role in the company.

Finally, there are the so-called “bullshit jobs”, a concept put forward by anthropologist David Graeber in 2013. They are defined as jobs without much interest and where the employee does not manage to justify his or her existence. In his book David Graeber identifies 5 categories of bullshit jobs:

  • Stooges: Their job is to put their superior forward
  • Flunkeys: This is a job that exists only by mimicry. Like the lobbyist or the company lawyer, who is only hired because the company next door has one.
  • The patchers: Their mission is to solve dysfunctions within the company caused by the lack of adapted technologies.
  • The checkers: Their job is literally to collect information that will not be used.
  • Little bosses: They distribute work to their teams and constantly monitor them, even if it is unnecessary.

The symptoms and effects of brown-out

jeune homme dépressif au travail

This syndrome can be difficult to detect in the employee. Unlike burn-out or bore-out, the employee remains functional. It is therefore necessary to be very attentive.

Physical symptoms

Unlike burn-out or bore-out, the brown-out syndrome does not currently list many physical symptoms. As this pathology is very recent, occupational medicine still has a lot of research to do.

Emotional, intellectual, and cognitive symptoms

Loss of motivation is the number one symptom of an employee suffering from brown-out. If it is not temporary, it must be treated with care. The employee shows no interest in his or her work, does not want to invest in it, and may even be irritable. The feeling of uselessness caused by the job makes him/her devalue himself/herself and can create anxiety. This lack of interest in the job can also have serious repercussions on the employee’s social and family life and lead to depression.

Prevention of brown-out

The lack of meaning in business is very problematic. The very essence of an organisation is to give meaning to its employees. Managers and the Human Resources department have a key role to play in preventing brown-out.

Managing brown-out as an employee

When we are confronted with this loss of meaning, we generally act in contradiction with our deepest beliefs. This is known as cognitive dissonance. There are several “strategies” for dealing with this.

First of all, we can accept this cognitive dissonance by convincing ourselves that we are doing our work correctly and that our work is meaningful. We can also modify our beliefs to reduce our suffering at work.

Finally, there is the proactive method. This consists of accepting the situation in which we find ourselves and making choices to get out of it. Starting a dialogue with your manager can be beneficial. But it is also possible to ask for a change of department, a change of company, or professional retraining.

Managing brown-out in your team

As we have seen, this pathology is often linked to “bullshit jobs” or underemployment of intellectual capacities.

It is therefore very important for the manager to regularly review the situation with his or her teams in order to develop the tasks of the employees. Autonomy, creativity, and initiative must be promoted in order to release the talent of employees and develop them professionally.

Management must make employees want to invest in a meaningful collective project.

Prevention of brown-out at the company level

Companies must act upstream on psychosocial risks (PSR) through primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention.

Managers and Human Resources must work together to identify risk factors. Let us remember that the role of a company is to bring meaning to the work of individuals. They must therefore evaluate and analyse the missions of each individual to ensure that each job is meaningful.

The best way to do this is to interview employees directly to ensure that the expectations and reality of their tasks match the intensity and complexity of their work. It is also necessary to support employees in order to develop their skills and make their tasks evolve by training them or by offering them new roles within the organisation.

 

Conclusion: 

Brown-out is a new work-related pathology highlighted by David Graeber. But it is not new. Work-related psychological syndromes are not to be taken lightly. They can have serious consequences for the mental and physical health of employees. The loss of meaning plunges employees into turmoil and has a direct impact on your company. It is very important to ensure that quality of life at work policy is put in place to prevent RPS as much as possible and guarantee the sustainability of your teams.


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