RUST OUT STRESS SYNDROME (ROSS) – Managerial disease of a different hue



Dr. Madan Tripathy

Mr. A. B. Kashyap, alumni of a renowned Technical Institute with a brilliant academic record, joined in the management cadre in a reputed organization through campus selection. Strong in his core competency, he possesses a good analytical bent of mind and also the capacity to work in a team. People working under him were highly motivated and he had the reputation of being a go-getter, result oriented with remarkable leadership qualities. He got his promotions in the organizational ladder quite early, which was eyesore for some of his contemporaries. He had been sponsored for technical training abroad for a couple of times. He received accolades for bringing innovations in his areas of activities, which was widely acclaimed. He even received the coveted Chairman’s Award for young managers not once, but twice, which is very uncommon.

Everything was going smoothly for Mr. Kashyap until he was selected for execution of a project, on tenure. He worked hard and contributed for timely completion of the prestigious project earlier than scheduled, without any cost over-run; and in the process becoming very close to the Project Leader. Something unexpected happened after his project tenure. Instead of being posted back to his parent department, which is the normal practice, he was posted to another department,  presumably because there was no vacancy available in his parent department as mentioned by the head of the department.  He found the culture in the new department quite contrary to his attitude. There was no result orientation in the department; though there was a lot of importance given to the process. He found everyone from top to bottom busy in pushing papers & e-mails. Procrastination was the order of the day. He failed to pull on well with other colleagues in the department, who considered him a rank outsider. He did not have much to do to keep him engaged and motivated. Everything appeared topsy-turvy for him. He hardly had any jobs for him for more than three hours in a day. His appeal to the top management officials to post him back to his parent department did not yield any result. This demoralized him still more and he developed withdrawal symptoms. His friends and colleagues found him blowing over trifles, irritated, detached with loss of vitality. His new colleagues conveniently used to pass on the blame to him making him scapegoat in almost all review meetings. Though changing the job has occurred to him in between, he had some family compulsions for change of location. This demoralized him to a great extent and he developed habit of alcoholism. Alcohol, which was earlier “in parties only” for him, became a daily affair. This situation continued for a couple of years,  going from bad to worse, without any sign of relief.

Then came fortunately the turn around. It so happened that he had a chance meeting with the Head, HR of the organization (who had joined recently) in the residence of a common acquaintance. Credit goes to the Head, HR, his training, his competency and above all his own interest in understanding human behavior; he could guess that there is something seriously wrong with the young guy. A little probing discussion with the individual followed by independent session with the common acquaintance, going through his past records and further discussion with the seniors with whom Mr. Kashyap had worked earlier, he could fortunately fathom where the shoe pinches. As a process of rehabilitation, he placed him in a cross-functional challenging assignment. But, the problem did not subside. Mr. Kashyap started grumbling and expressed his inability to take up the new assignment. He expressed that he lacked the competency and will utterly fail. Quite naturally, by this time, his self-confidence was at its lowest ebb. Of course, it took some more sessions of counseling, after which he accepted the position, but with a bit of reluctance. For a couple of months, he continued in the new assignment, of course with much reduced vigor than was expected of him. Situation started improving after a couple of months and as of now, it is back on rails. Thanks to the timely intervention; a life is saved.

Is this case of Mr. Kashyap striking a chord with you or any of your acquaintances or juniors? Are you involved in a job that does not motivate you? Do you find the job not worth your talent, repetitive, unrewarding, dull and just plain boring? Do you often feel restless, dissatisfied, unhappy, stuck in a rut? Do you find your colleagues always complain about your behavior? Do you feel that your boss is overly critical about you and your performance? Do you find your sub-ordinates hesitate to interact with you? Do you find yourself grumbling to your colleagues, friends and family even on trifles?

If so, you or your acquaintance, as the case may be, belong to an exclusive club of management professionals suffering from RUST OUT STRESS SYNDROME (ROSS).


Before discussing ROSS, we need to have a brief discussion on Stress & Burnout, which are in fact very well-known & house-hold words in the present competitive business environment. Though generally, the word stress gives a negative connotation, stress by itself is not bad. Truly speaking, more or less stress in managerial job is inevitable as management, by its very nature, is potentially a stressful activity caused by conflicting demands, both physical and psychological, placed upon the manager. The managers, who in effect control all the resources in an organization viz:-men, machine, material, methods and money, are constantly under stress to perform better and more so in the present competitive environment.


There are two types of Stress – Eustress & Distress. Eu means good. Eustress is pleasant and supportive stress. It is manageable levels of stress for reasonable duration, which mobilizes your resources and get you going on tackling the tasks and problems in your life. We can’t always avoid stress. In reality, many a times, we don’t want to avoid stress. It is not the occurrence of stress that is harmful; rather a manager functions better under stress to a great extent. Unless there is some amount of stress, there is no drive. It is stress that helps you maintain your focus and provide you the competitive edge. In fact, stress is the fuel that makes the manager move. Stress is like electric power which can make a bulb light and provide brilliant illumination. Dys (Di) means bad. Distress can happen due to overburden. It is the improperly coped stress. When the level of stress becomes much higher than the controllable limit of the individual, stress controls the individual instead of the individual controlling the stress.

Burn Out Stress Syndrome (BOSS)

With the same example, if the voltage is higher than what the bulb can endure, it can burn out the bulb. Burn out is the negative consequence of stress and the result of excess stress experienced and not properly coped with resulting in symptoms of exertion, irritation, personal frustration, ineffectiveness, inaction and some health problems such as hypertension, ulcer, diabetes etc. Burn Out Stress Syndrome is a stress of a very high level coupled with dysfunctional coping modes. Victims of Burn Out Stress Syndrome exhibit (i) physical symptoms like frequent headache, insomnia, indigestion, palpitation, irritable bowls, muscle ache, high sugar, high blood pressure etc., (ii) emotional symptoms like irritation, rage, despair, sadness and (iii) behavioral effects like arguments and fights over relatively trivial matters, unreasonableness, uncommunicative,  irritability, lack of interest / over interest in sex, alcoholism, addiction to drug etc.

Rust Out Stress Syndrome (ROSS)

Surprisingly, Rust Out Stress Syndrome (ROSS) victims exhibit the same or similar physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms like BOSS victims. There is not much difference in effects. But, though effects are same, the causes are different. Though Mr. Kashyap has exhibited almost all the symptoms of Burn Out Stress Syndrome, which arise out of overwork and high stress, but the origin of his case is absolutely different, and in fact just the opposite. The case of Mr. Kashyap and many more in any organization is a case where being under-worked & under-challenged leads to similar symptoms as Burn out Stress syndrome. The fact is most people really want to work and are interested to contribute more for their organization(s). If these people are not allowed to work at their full potential, they feel depressed, dissatisfied, and unproductive and become cynic. This is what the Rust Out Stress Syndrome is, quite contrary to the Burn Out Stress Syndrome. Whereas, stress-overload leads to Burn Out Stress Syndrome, stress-under-load leads to Rust Out Stress Syndrome. The point being emphasized  is that it is not simply the amount of work or the amount of stress or the burden of responsibility that cause the body and spirit of individual to break; sometimes it is rather absence of these. So, it is desirable to distinguish between the two, even if symptoms are same; because treatment needs to be different depending on the inherent cause.

  1. E. Douglas and D. N. Douglas in their article “Manage your time, manage work, manage yourself,” (1980) published in the journal of Amacom (a division of American Management Association) have mentioned, “Stress is defined as any action or situation that places special physical or psychological demand upon a person, Too much stress or too little stress can be harmful.” Researchers have discovered that there are basically two types of people: Race Horse and Turtle. Race Horses thrive on high stress levels. They are happy with vigorous, fast-paced life style. Turtles are happier in peaceful, quite environment. Either type, if placed in opposite environment, will function poorly. Though I do not entirety agree with them that there are basically two types of people because I feel there are much more in between Race Horses and Turtles; but they are right when they say–“People when placed in opposite environment will function poorly.” It is very important to realize that while moderate stress may bring about improvement in performance, severe stress left un-managed by the individual leads to Burn Stress Syndrome and too little stress leads to Rust Out Stress Syndrome. Too little stress is not less dangerous than too much stress. All of us are aware how lethal low voltage can be for electronic gazettes.

APEX, the Association of Professional Executives in the Public Services in Canada, by its study on Executive Stress found out that the increase in physical and emotional distress in the rank of public services executives are not attributed to overwork but to lack of control. The distinguishing feature of the conclusion of the study is that in respect of Executives, who feel in control of the decisions they make and the how and why of their decisions; their performance is healthy and even thrives irrespective of the weight of the workload. Executives, who are not in control of their decisions and their performance, feel distress. Another main reason of Rust Out in organizations is that people find their job under-challenged. This is more prevalent in the middle management ranks in the organizations. With the fast change in technology, growing competition coupled with ineffective succession planning in organizations, the middle management cadre   is   bulging   without   proper responsibility and authority and as a result most of the middle managers find their job under-challenged and slowly but steadily moving towards Rust Out Stress Syndrome.

However, ROSS does not confine itself to Middle Management cadre alone. It manifests itself at all levels of Management, be it Junior or Higher Inadequate delegation and passing the buck to higher and higher is still a well-known phenomenon in some organizations and along with it the decision-making. Even, it is not very uncommon to hear comments from some top management professionals that “I have informed the management about it. Let us see what decision the management takes!” It leaves people wondering who that management they talk about is. The fault lays in the system- the lack of job-clarity, lack of accountability and lack of the system for fixing the responsibility. The other name of “EVERYBODY IS RESPONSIBLE” is “NOBODY IS RESPONSIBLE”.

Work-under-load, challenge-under-load and lack of varieties in the job are the three major reasons for ROSS. Rust Out Stress Syndrome can be quantitative or qualitative. Having too little things to do or too much time to do the job is quantitative under-load, whereas qualitative under-load occurs where individuals feel that they are under-challenged as performance standards are too low and they possess much higher potential. Some amount of difficulty in the work fuels the necessary motivation for performing the job and a sense of achievement on successful completion. Similarly, the work needs to have some varieties, rather than being mundane and repetitive, for continuation of interest and a sense of achievement.


The symptoms of ROSS are as varied as the persons suffering from ROSS. Some become angry, growling at anyone crossing their path, some become quite introverted and isolated, some resort to blaming everybody around them, some resort to alcohol  or other such  intoxicating substances, some become psychologically absent only shuffling papers on their table and some run from appointments to appointments without actually doing anything worthwhile and some even experience physical symptoms including high blood pressure, headache, asthma, diabetes, piles, muscle contraction etc. or even may turn hypochondriac.

Rust Out Stress Syndrome victims are likely to be caught in a vicious circle of self-degradation. When they do not have sufficient work or sufficient challenge in their job, they become dissatisfied with their job developing a notion that they are cheated by the Organization and that work is a wastage of time, which leads to the feeling that they are failures in their career, culminating in pessimism and feeling of worthlessness.

Rust Out Stress Syndrome (ROSS) is contagious; though I am not very sure whether Burn Out Stress Syndrome is. ROSS is contagious in the same way as pessimism is. It affects the colleagues, juniors and seniors who come in contact with the ROSS victim. ROSS victims are less engaged


 So, what can be done? Is there any responsibility of the Employer? Or is it that the individual should be left to mend for himself? The answer obviously lies in understanding who suffers. If employee(s) suffer from ROSS, he is not engaged, it spreads to others, there is low company morale, may be more attrition, resources are wasted affecting productivity and profitability.

The first step for the Organization is to appreciate that ROSS can exist and start talking about it and make managers and people aware about its occurrence, so that ROSS at any level anywhere in the organization does not go unnoticed. Otherwise, it may spread like cancer, even without the knowledge of the people and the leadership.

Prevention is always better than cure. Of course, the age-old dictum of putting right person at the right place at the right time for the right duration is the most important step. Matching employees to the correct position based on their potential is of paramount consideration. Making employees clear about their role and responsibility, involving employees in challenging new jobs, cross functional teams and involvement in decision making go a long way in making them feel that they are valued in the organization.

Organization needs to address ROSS upfront and with an open mind, It needs to be appreciated that ROSS can occur anywhere, anytime. But, it is reversible. As such, it is absolutely essential that constant vigil need be maintained to spot lack of enthusiasm, not taking interest or initiatives, remaining subdued and un-involved etc. by employee(s). If there is early detection of signs & symptoms, it is that much easier to deal with it. However, it also must be kept in mind that the action is required to be corrective and not punitive. If your employee or sub-ordinate is showing signs of ROSS, he is not responsible for it alone. You also share equal, if not more, responsibility. Firing an employee suffering from ROSS will take you nowhere. There is no guarantee that his replacement or another employee will not suffer from it. It is absolutely essential to go to the root cause & correct it there.

Sometimes, the virus of ROSS spreads through apprehension of employees to adjust to new job demands arising out of technological changes. Training to keep pace with the skill sets required for immediate and future changes can help mitigate such fear.

Open Culture in the Organization is extremely important to catch ROSS by its horn.  More face to face discussion with employees by the concerned managers, open house by senior leaders in the organizations, skip-level meetings (in which a senior leader talks to junior employees in groups in absence of their boss) and easy access to senior leadership are some of the processes that prevent ROSS to occur and gets noticed early if at all occurs. Some of the processes like Job-enlargement and Job-enrichment can also be helpful in controlling ROSS. But, in fact like any other people relations systems, it is not the system that is important; rather how it is implemented.


 Okay. Let us say, you or your acquaintance is suffering from Rust out Stress syndrome either in mild from or in severe form. What should you do about it? It must be clearly understood that in a management disease of this nature, you have to be your own doctor. If you run to a medical practitioner, he will prescribe you medicines for the symptoms not for the inherent cause. If you go to a Psychotherapist or a Counselor, he cannot do much unless you co-operate. As such, basically it boils down to you to take care of yourself. How should you then go about it?

Let us say, you have a car which has developed rust in some parts. You have one of the five options given below:

  • Ignore it and it will go away: Really, it will go away. But, it will take the rest of your car with it.
  • Dress the rust: You look for the appropriate color and paint the affected area. Though finding a paint/color that matches the rest of your car is silly, the rust does not go away and may make internal inroads to other parts without your knowledge.
  • Mend the Rust: This means closing up the holes in perforated areas by welding pieces of metals wherever necessary and then paint it. Still you do not really care how it finally looks like because no mending can be absolutely perfect.
  • Remove the rusted part and put a new part: Even if it is costlier, it may look better and add to the long-term health of the car.
  • Change the car: This could be the best alternative, but involves a lot of money.

While you could have sufficient money to change your car, the same logic cannot apply when you deal with Rust Out Stress Syndrome, where your whole body and mind is involved. Alternative (i) and alternative (v) being ruled out and alternative (ii) being not desirable, you are left with two alternatives, alternatives (iii) & (iv).

Without carrying the simile of Rust Out Stress Syndrome with rusting of car much too far, the following options are available to you to bring you back on road.

1.Ask for more meaningful job: You need to convince your superiors that you have more potential and you deserve getting more meaningful and challenging job. Unfortunately, some superiors never like to delegate or think about giving you more meaningful job. If so, you are really stuck-up and may have to try some other option.

2.  Restructure your job and create more meaningful job for you: While staying in the present assignment, you should find challenging jobs for you to keep you happy and busy within the overall objectives and goals of the Organization. Even in your present assignment, if you really give a try, you may get some worthwhile jobs. You should volunteer for new assignments, corporate CFTs in your own Organization in addition to your present job, which will give you both the quantity of the job and also the necessary challenge.

3. Learn something new and start doing something new: Life and work become dull and monotonous when you stop learning. Think! You might have a passion for writing. You may derive pleasure in spending your extra time in reading Management Journals and writing articles for different management journals, may be some creative professional work which will give you the much needed satisfaction. You can join and participate in activities in professional organizations, which are plenty. Rekindle your interest in your profession, become active, write for journals, present papers, and take responsibility for training colleagues. Avenues are unlimited. Only you have to try and try sincerely. If a branded idiot could transform himself to the great poet Kalidas, then sky can well be the limit for you.

4. Attack the problem head-on: But you may as well say all the above options sound sense, but they are unrealistic and your problem is much more severe than that. I am afraid if that is the case, then you may have to really try to change your department or may change your employer or at the worst change fields. Changing departments or changing employers or changing fields is one of the most effective cures for severe job rust out. However, there are also reasons why people hesitate to choose one of these options – may be because of family considerations, because of financial reasons, because of resistance for a radical change or may be because of fear of the unknown. But, such a change is welcome if you are really stuck up with a bad case of job rust out.

Nevertheless, this option should be exercised only after a lot of careful thought and soul searching; only when all other options do not materialize. Does it not sound sense to take up a job you like whatever may be the drawbacks than to continue like a dead person in a job where you do not have any interest?

Of course, the worst thing you can do is simply do nothing. As the old German saying goes- “Wer rastet, der rostet”, which means “If you  rest, you rust.”






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