Brown-out: chronicle of an announced burn-out


Franz Kafka wrote: “One sees the sun slowly set, yet one is surprised when it suddenly becomes dark.” This sentence captures the essence of those who are “suddenly” confronted with a burn-out. Many of them say they didn’t feel it coming and went down with great surprise. Strange though, because you don’t develop burn-out overnight.

What the heck is brown-out?

Before you end up with burn-out, you get entangled in a brown-out. Brown-out?! Never heard of it before! If this statement reflects your sentiment, then you probably don’t work in the electricity industry, which is where business psychologists have borrowed the term from.

On an electrotechnical level, the term “brown-out” refers to a voltage drop in the electricity grid, resulting in a slight power failure. The word “slight” being the operative word when we translate a brown-out to the workplace: a brown-out manifests itself very subtly, and is therefore a misunderstood, but all too common problem.

As early as 2015, an American study showed that 5% of the 1,000 managers surveyed suffered burn-out, while 40% suffered brown-out. The typical symptoms of brown-out are very recognisable if you know the most common symptoms of burn-out or bore-out: lethargy, demotivation, a feeling of meaninglessness, physical exhaustion, digestive and sleep disorders, … .

Causes of brown-out

The main culprits that can lead to brown-out are pointless tasks, and a gap between personal values and work. Most brown-outs can be found among highly qualified starters working below their level, and among employees who have ended up in a so-called “golden cage”, full of senseless routine and with little challenge. Of course, everyone is different, but – without wanting to generalise – the generation of millennials who attach great importance to “purpose”, i.e. meaning in their job, runs an increased risk of brown-out.


Research from various angles shows that the situation is getting worse:

  • 64% of interviewed employees experience stress at work, 27% have multiple stress complaints (Securex 2014)
  • 21% of 30-40-year olds feel mentally exhausted, and 1 in 5 employees in their thirties already shows symptoms of burn-out (cynicism and less self-confidence) (Securex 2017)
  • 1 in 10 feels poorly every day because of work (Agilitas 2018)

Specific research into employee happiness in Belgium (HIP-Consult, May 2018) unfortunately confirms these figures. 1 in 5 employees feels discouraged (21%). Feeling discouraged or despondent expresses the downside of feeling happy. This is certainly a signal that employees are losing their energy and enthusiasm, and that burn-out is luring around the corner. Their fighting skills and resilience are gradually disappearing.

What if you are suffering from brown-out?

The good news is that a brown-out is reversible. To do this, a number of conditions must be met. For example, you must first become aware of the fact that you might be suffering from brown-out. Making the subject discussable is already a first step. If necessary, seek professional help from a certified stress and burn-out coach.

Are you a manager and do you want to prevent brown-out in your team or organisation? Then visit the Tryangle website and take a look at our well-being solutions.

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