Not burnt out but browned out?

We’ve all experienced a power blackout when everything shuts down and we need to get out the camp stove to make a cuppa. Have you ever noticed a ‘brownout’? That’s when the lights flicker and maybe some of your electrical appliances drop out for just a few seconds.

‘Brownout’ is now being used in an emotional sense too. You probably know of someone who has left a high-powered job because of feeling ‘burnt out’. The stage prior to that burnout is known as brownout:

‘Brownout is different from burnout because workers afflicted by it are not in obvious crisis,” says Michael E Kibler, CEO of Corporate Balance Concepts. “They seem to be performing fine: Putting in massive hours in meetings and calls across time zones, grinding out work while leading or contributing to global teams, and saying all the right things in meetings (though not in side-bar conversations.)’

If that’s the case, why does it matter?

 ‘However, these executives are often operating in a silent state of continual overwhelm, and the predictable consequence is disengagement.’

What are the indicators of brownout?

Kibler’s study indicated that 40% of executives reported experiencing brownout and I must say that I have seen brownout in a similar proportion of my coaching clients, many of whom are regarded as key performers within their organisations. They speak of experiencing some or all of the following:

Lack of interest

‘I’m just going through the motions,’ said one. ‘The work’s being done and it’s being done well. I just don’t care about it as much.’

Lack of challenge

‘It’s like I’m coasting along and they’re just happy to let that happen. I have a wealth of skills, experience and knowledge and I want something to get my teeth into. I know I can add value to the business but I’m seem to be viewed as a safe pair of hands and they’d better not move me to something new.’

Lack of ability to engage with life outside of work

‘I’m constantly distracted by emails and texts from or about work. I feel so thinly stretched that I don’t have time for my wife or my kids or to do the stuff which reinvigorates me. I’m often bored in my downtime but lack the energy to do anything about it.’

Lack of personal engagement

‘Aside from meetings, I don’t really talk with colleagues. My manager doesn’t seem to show any interest in me as an individual.’

Lack of autonomy

‘I’ve been performing at a high level consistently for several years. I neither need nor want to micro-managed. I shouldn’t need to justify buying a client a cup of coffee at the station – stuff like that really gets under my skin.’

Lack of development

‘They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but I want to learn new tricks! I want to embrace new technology and create new opportunities in the business. They don’t seem to have heard of lifelong learning here.’

burnout brownout work

Brownout’s not just an issue for employees

Brownout can apply to solo business owners or even to those whose focus is at home. For this reason, it’s important that all of us learn to notice these ‘symptoms’ and take action to address them.

For managers, brownout can be difficult to spot in others – however, ensuring that you take time to build effective relationships with your team is key. Not only will this mean you will be more likely to notice subtle changes in behaviour, but it can lead you to open conversations about how they feel and where their motivations and aspirations lie. For more information on this, read about Michael Kibler’s concept of ‘active partnering’.

Whether you’re an employee of a large organisation or self-employed, working with a coach can help you to identify what’s missing in your work and plan how to fill those gaps. For some of my clients, those gaps have been filled by looking for a new job, sometimes in a completely different field. For others, those gaps have been plugged after an honest conversation with their managers with whom they have been able to plot a new course. Other clients have chosen to stay with their current organisation but seek a new role, offering them a new challenge and direction.  Finally, some clients have taken on projects outside the office which have provided them with a fresh sense of purpose which they’ve been able to carry over into their work too.

I have had coaching conversations with those whose main role is being at home with the family and helped them to see how they can stop the slide from brownout to burnout and find fulfilment and reinvigoration within their daily life.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: do you see any signs of brownout in yourself or in colleagues or friends? What step can you take this week to address this?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like someone to help you avoid brownout in your career or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?





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3 Responses to Not burnt out but browned out?

  1. Barbara says:

    ‘Brownout’! Yes. What a marvellous description of how I feel. What to do? Needs thought.

  2. John Bayer says:

    I’m seeing this all the time. Brownout can develop for a number of reasons – not all work related, of course. But most of those I see can be traced back to poor management: lack of strategy, direction, being micromanaged, or having to justify that cup of coffee for the client.

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