Employee brown-out: a new challenge for VSEs and SMEs

Among the various psychosocial risks in the workplace, brown-out is gaining increasing attention, particularly among small and medium-sized businesses. It translates into demotivation and disinvestment on the part of employees, who no longer find meaning in their work and no longer believe in the value of their missions. Returning to the office after months of telecommuting has accentuated the phenomenon, which could be partly responsible for the increase in absenteeism and the number of resignations in 2020 and 2021.

From burn-out to brown-out

While burn-out is now well known, and bore-out, the exhaustion syndrome caused by under-work, has also made the headlines, brown-out has been little talked about in companies until now.

Yet this suffering at work is not new: brown-out was first theorized about ten years ago by the anthropologist David Graeber, in parallel with his work on "bullshit jobs", those occupations born of technical progress and regarded as devoid of meaning.

Brown-out, which results from a loss of meaning at work, translates into disinvestment on the part of the employee concerned. This type of suffering is harder to detect than burn-out or bore-out, as the person concerned generally remains functional and continues to carry out his or her duties.

However, employers must take brown-out seriously. This syndrome can lead to a loss of self-confidence, withdrawal and anxiety. It can also lead to irritability, mental fatigue, attention problems and depression.


De-motivation, absenteeism and resignations

According to a study by the start-up Chance, which offers coaching services to help people find the right job in the event of a career change, 78% of people surveyed consider that feeling useful at work is important or essential. Yet 62% of those surveyed by Chance said they didn't really feel useful in their work.

The health crisis has had a considerable impact on many employees, especially young telecommuters, for whom salary is no longer the only motivation. Quality of life, the meaning given to the work performed, and the company's social and environmental commitments are just as important.

For SMEs, these new demands mean adopting more personalized management techniques, adapted to employees' expectations. But the Covid-19 pandemic and the widespread use of telecommuting , often in a hurry , have undermined these ambitions. Many companies have stepped up their control strategies and increased the use of videoconferencing, adding to working time and unwittingly leading employees to question the meaning of their missions.

For some, the return to the office after months of telecommuting was not an easy experience. By forcing employees to return to the office, without consultation, rather than questioning the relevance of a hybrid work model combining telecommuting and face-to-face work, companies have sometimes contributed to demotivating teams. While it's true that employees are now physically present, some of them are actually resigning mentally.

This brown-out phenomenon could partly explain the rise in absenteeism and resignations that several studies have observed in 2020 and 2021. According to a study by WTW, formerly Gras Savoye, absenteeism was 20% higher in 2020 than in 2019.

As for resignations, according to figures from the Direction de l'animation, de la recherche, des études et des statistiques (Dares), they have risen by between 10% and 20%, depending on company size, between 2019 and 2021.