More than just the little sister of a full-on burnout, experts describe the ‘brownout’ as a new stage of boredom and disengagement at work

Sadly, everybody knows what burnout looks like: super-stressed high achievers learning the hard way that their work-life balance is seriously out of whack. But what about brownout? The term, as outlined in the Harvard Business Review by US coaching firm Corporate Balance Concepts, is a kind of nagging low-level malaise that could mean a full-on burnout is on the way.

People suffering from brownout might outwardly look OK, and may seem to be performing just fine. Yet, as their energy fades and their spark disappears they could slowly be getting more demotivated, disengaged and generally fed-up.

“If you look at power stations, a blackout is when you totally lose all power, while a brownout is when they have to run it at a lower wattage,” explains business coach Karen Perkins. “It’s a way to describe people who are not running at full power but are just on a treadmill in the same old role.”

It’s an increasingly common problem. In a survey of 1,000 executives Corporate Balance Solutions ascertained that around 40% were suffering from some sort of brownout. And the reason why it’s so prevalent at the moment could be because of the current business climate.

Employees may have held on to their jobs during the recession, but restructuring is still common (especially in the public sector) and Perkins says that anxiety about their future could exacerbate this feeling of disengagement.

“Over the last few years people have seen the terms and conditions of their jobs change and the rise of zero hours contracts. That can undermine people and make them feel more nervous, destabilised and anxious.”

Professor Cary Cooper, CBE, adds that this mood can also be exacerbated by changing technology, especially among older workers. “You see people in their 50s who’ve seen their role change so much in the last five years because of new technology coming in. Five years ago it didn’t seem like we had much social media, for example, and now it’s part of a lot of people’s jobs. It means that people can feel they no longer have the competencies they need to do their job properly – and this can be compounded by ‘techno-stress’, that feeling of being overwhelmed by information technology. People lose interest, stop making an effort and start to zone out.”

What are the symptoms of brownout?

A loss of interest in their personal lives, or lack of quality time with friends and family is one symptom. A feeling of being drained by work, eating badly and feeling out of shape is another.

“Because people feel disengaged they may start to moan,” says Perkins. “Also, because their self-esteem is taking a hit they’re likely to feel unsettled. This might mean they’re less likely to be able to make clear decisions, they could well keep coming back to check things with you, and might even come across as being ‘needy’.”

Of course, smart managers will address these kinds of issues through regular one-to-ones. But if people don’t want to talk directly then it may be a good idea to try another tack.

“You should be setting clear goals for your staff and checking on their progress, and that can be an opportunity to check in with how they’re feeling without it seeming quite so ‘personal’,” says Perkins.

And because brownout is all about disengagement it pays to devise some new ways to get your team reconnected with their role.

“Setting someone a challenge can really work, although it’s essential not to do this in a patronising way so they feel they’re being fobbed off,” says Perkins. “Organising a job swap, or even asking them to review a management book and reporting their findings back to the team can work. However, if staff are worried about a wider issue such as redundancy or restructuring, you should address the problem honestly, while being realistic about what you can do.”

Meanwhile, if times are tough, or you’ve been in the role for a while, there’s a chance you might be feeling more than a little ‘browned-off’ yourself. Which is when it could be time to take stock of what you need to do to crank up your own personal power levels.

“One thing to do is step back and think of things you might be grateful for – such as ‘I’m very grateful to have this job – now how can I make it better?,’ says Perkins. “Why not treat the role like it was your business, what would you do to improve things? You could even, if you were feeling brave, use the 360 degree feedback technique to get some other opinions on your situation."

But whatever you choose to do, it’s vital to address the situation. As Perkins says, managers are role models for their staff and if you’re heading for a brownout then you don’t want to take the rest of your team down with you.