Brown Out in the Workplace: A Guide for HR and Employers


Ah, the Brown Out! You may have heard the term floating around the corridors or in virtual meetings, and we’re here to take the mystery out of it.

Brown Out” in the workplace is not a subject to be taken lightly. It’s a subtle but pernicious reality that permeates the lives of our employees, affecting not only their well-being but also productivity and, ultimately, the success of our business.

In this article, we will delve into the world of the Brown Out, explore its symptoms, understand its root causes, and most importantly, discuss how we, as employers and HR professionals, can spot it and remedy it effectively.

Understanding the “Brown Out”

Definition and explanation of the term brown out

Brown Out” in the corporate world is a relatively recent term, but it’s not a new concept, it just has a new name and, more importantly, it’s affecting a growing number of professionals around the world, no doubt caused by the rapid societal changes we’ve seen in recent decades.

Unlike “burn out”, which is often characterised by exhaustion, cynical disillusionment and an inability to function effectively at work, “brown out” is more subtle. This is a state of professional lethargy, where employees become disengaged, losing their motivation and passion for their work, without showing any obvious outward signs of exhaustion or stress.

The final phase of the brown out is very often the “quiet quitting”, which we have already discussed in another article.

Symptoms and telltale signs

The symptoms of brown out can often go unnoticed because they are less visible and less dramatic than those of burn out. This can include:

  • Lack of motivation: A noticeable drop in enthusiasm and commitment to work.
  • Lower productivity: Tasks take longer to complete and targets are not met.
  • Disengagement: Less interaction and participation in team meetings or events.
  • Dissatisfaction: A general feeling of dissatisfaction or frustration with work.

Impact on employees and the company

The impact of ‘brown out’ can be devastating for both employees and the company. For employees, this can mean a loss of enjoyment and satisfaction in their work, which can also affect their general well-being and personal life. This kind of atmosphere and behaviour has an unfortunate tendency to be “contagious”. If your colleagues are always in a state of half-awakeness, looking dull, joyless and unmotivated, how are you going to keep yours?

For the company, this often means lower productivity, higher staff turnover and a weakened corporate culture. What makes this a particularly pernicious subject is that it’s a very gradual evolution, which can be difficult to detect.

This is usually only realised much later, months after the “onset” of the first symptoms, often by comparing one period with the same period in the previous year.

Underlying causes of “Brown Out”

Internal factors

Brown out” can be fuelled by various internal factors within the company. This can include a toxic corporate culture, a lack of recognition, a lack of career development opportunities or an excessive workload.

When employees don’t feel valued or supported, their commitment and passion for the job can quickly evaporate, giving way to indifference and disillusionment.

Toxic Corporate Culture

A palpable example of this might be a company where competition is encouraged to an unhealthy level, creating an environment where employees feel constantly in competition with each other rather than working together towards common goals. Imagine a company where mistakes are not seen as learning opportunities, but are instead punished or used as a means of criticising or devaluing employees. In such an environment, employees can quickly lose their motivation to innovate or take the initiative for fear of making mistakes and being reprimanded.

Lack of recognition

Take the example of a company where employees regularly work overtime or go above and beyond the call of duty to help the company achieve its objectives. If these efforts are not recognised or rewarded, employees can start to feel neglected and undervalued. This could be the case in a start-up, for example, where everyone is expected to “pull their weight” without necessarily receiving any recognition or reward for the personal sacrifices they make for the company.

Lack of career development prospects

Another example could be a company where employees are stuck in their current roles with no clear opportunities for growth or professional development. Even if they excel at their jobs, the lack of clear progression paths or career development opportunities can lead them to become disengaged, feeling stagnant and unsupported in their professional development.

Excessive workload

This also happens to companies that, in an attempt to reduce costs, constantly overload their employees with workloads that are unrealistic and unsustainable in the long term.

Employees may initially try to rise to the challenge, but as time passes and work overload becomes the norm, they may start to feel frustrated, tired and eventually disengaged, feeling that their well-being is not a priority for the company.

External factors

External factors, such as changes in the industry, market pressure, or global crises (such as a pandemic), can also contribute to the “Brown Out”. The uncertainty and stress generated by these factors can have a knock-on effect on employees, adversely affecting their morale and motivation.

Changes in the industry

Let’s take the example of a traditional manufacturing company in an industry that is undergoing rapid digital transformation. Employees, particularly those used to traditional working methods, can feel overwhelmed and stressed by the pressure to adapt to new technologies and working methods. If the company doesn’t provide enough support in the form of training or resources, employees can feel left behind, which can lead to disengagement and a “Brown Out.

Market pressure

Imagine a company in a highly competitive market, where the pressure to maintain market share and stay relevant is intense. For example, a technology company in a market where innovations occur at a rapid pace and where there is constant pressure to be at the cutting edge. Employees can feel under pressure to perform at constantly high levels, which can be exhausting and lead to a “Brown Out” if an appropriate work-life balance is not maintained.

World crises

A recent and relevant example would be the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses in all sectors have been affected, with employees having to adapt to teleworking, manage economic uncertainty, and juggle personal and professional challenges. In the restaurant sector, for example, many employees have had to deal with temporary closures, changes in operations and uncertainty about the future of the industry. This prolonged uncertainty and stress can contribute to the “Brown Out” by creating a continually stressful and uncertain working environment.

We’re obviously thinking of pandemics, but a sharp recession, an increase in the cost of living, political instability or growing insecurity will also have an impact on the way employees experience their jobs.

Identifying the “Brown Out” as an employer or HR department

Early warning signals

Recognising the early warning signs of ‘Brown Out’ is crucial to taking proactive measures before the situation worsens. This can include a noticeable drop in productivity, negative comments in interviews or employee surveys, and an increase in absences or lateness.

Examples of “Brown Out” symptoms:

Lower productivity

  • Frequent delays in deliveries.
  • Reduced quality of work.

Negative comments

  • Increase in complaints or negative comments during one-to-one interviews.
  • Results of employee surveys indicating dissatisfaction or disengagement.

Increase in absences or lateness:

  • Significant increase in the number of sick days taken.
  • Increased frequency of late arrivals at work.


  • Reduced participation or absence from team meetings.
  • Lack of interaction or communication with colleagues.

Change in attitude or behaviour

  • A negative or cynical attitude towards work or the company.
  • Reduced contributions or sharing of ideas during team discussions.

Reduced job satisfaction

  • Verbal or written expressions of dissatisfaction or frustration with work or the work environment.
  • Reduced enthusiasm for company projects or initiatives.

Avoiding responsibility

  • Avoidance of additional tasks or projects.
  • Reluctance to take the initiative or assume additional responsibilities.

Reduced innovation and creativity

  • Lack of new or innovative ideas.
  • Reluctance to explore or adopt new working methods.

Health problems

  • Complaints about health problems linked to stress or fatigue.
  • Increased use of mental health benefits.

High turnover rate

Use of tools and data for detection

The use of analysis and data tools can also help identify trends or patterns that could indicate an imminent ‘Brown Out’. This can include analysing performance data, conducting regular employee engagement surveys and monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs) relating to employee well-being.

  1. Performance analysis tools:
    • 15Five: A tool that allows employees to regularly share their successes, challenges and concerns with their managers.
    • Peakon: A platform that collects and analyses employee feedback to improve engagement and retention.
  2. Employee engagement surveys:
    • SurveyMonkey: Offers employee engagement survey templates that can be customized to meet the specific needs of your organization.
    • Voxco: Can be used to create surveys to gather feedback from employees.
  3. Monitoring KPIs relating to employee well-being:
    • Tableau: A data visualization tool that can help track and visualize KPIs related to employee well-being.
    • Microsoft Power BI: Create interactive dashboards to monitor and analyse data relating to employee well-being.

Strategies for managing and preventing “Brown Out”

Proactive and reactive approaches

Managing the Brown Out requires a combination of proactive and reactive approaches. By being proactive, we can put in place strategies to prevent ‘Brown Out’, such as wellbeing programmes and employee recognition initiatives.

On the other hand, a reactive approach is also needed to manage existing cases of “Brown Out” and help employees regain their motivation and commitment.

Employee Communication and Feedback

Establishing open and transparent communication channels is essential to understanding employee morale and concerns. Encourage honest feedback and create an environment where employees feel safe to express their concerns without fear of repercussions.

Open communication channels

Regular meetings: Hold regular meetings with teams to discuss not only current projects but also to take stock of their well-being and concerns.

Suggestion boxes: Set up suggestion boxes (physical or digital) where employees can anonymously share their thoughts or concerns.

Discussion forums: Create forums or discussion groups where employees can share their ideas and feedback in a safe space and where they feel supported. This can be done via Slack, Teams, Discord (free) or any other messaging system.

Encourage honest feedback

Anonymous surveys: Use anonymous surveys to allow employees to freely express their opinions without fear of negative repercussions.

360-degree evaluations: Implement 360-degree evaluations where employees, peers and supervisors can share constructive feedback on each other.

A secure environment for expression

Non-retaliation policy: Establish and clearly communicate a non-retaliation policy to assure employees that they will not be penalised for sharing their concerns or feedback.

Listening sessions:Organise listening sessions where leaders actively listen to employees’ concerns without passing judgement or offering immediate solutions.

Acting on feedback

Action Plan: Develop an action plan based on the feedback received and clearly communicate the steps that will be taken in response.

Follow-up: Follow up regularly on actions taken in response to feedback and continue to adjust strategies in line with evolving needs and concerns.

Transparent communication

Regular updates: Provide regular updates on organisational changes, successes, and challenges to keep employees informed and included in the company journey.

Diversified communication channels: Use a variety of communication channels (emails, meetings, newsletters, internal newspaper, etc.) to ensure that important messages are received by all employees.

Implementation of Well-being and Support Programmes

The implementation of wellbeing and support programmes can play a crucial role in preventing and managing Brown Out. This can include mental health programmes, professional development opportunities and initiatives that promote work-life balance.

Training for Leaders and Managers

Leaders and managers play a key role in managing the Brown Out. By training them to recognise the signs of “Brown Out” and providing them with the tools they need to support their teams, we can create a healthier working environment geared towards support, listening and helping each other.

To find out more about Brown Out

Here are a few additional resources to help you identify, analyse and resolve your brown out problems:

“Le Brown-out: Quand le travail n’a plus sens” by François Baumann

This book explores the phenomenon of Brown-out, explaining its causes and symptoms and suggesting ways of dealing with it.

Link to the publisher (Éditions Tredaniel)

“Le livre noir du travail” by Gérard Filoche and Noël Diricq

This book is a psycho-sociological, philosophical and cultural study and analysis of everything that makes up life in the workplace, all those elements that are part of the socio-economic, historical and political context of everyday life. How many words were listened to, how many aches and pains faithfully transcribed in this book ! The result is a dramatic assessment of the destructive effects of new, increasingly dehumanised forms of work.

Link to the publisher (Éditions l’Harmattan)

“Souffrance en France: La banalisation de l’injustice sociale” by Christophe Dejours

This book explores suffering at work in France, looking at the various forms it can take, including burn-out and potentially Brown-out.

Link to the publisher (Éditions du Seuil)

Brown-out”, a problem not to be taken lightly

The Brown Out reminds us of the importance of creating a working environment that not only supports productivity and performance, but also promotes the well-being and fulfilment of every member of the team. It must be part of your employer brand, part of your company’s identity.

The solution may seem simplistic when you put it like that: “all you need is a good working environment”. Of course, but if you’re an employer or HR, you know full well that it’s much more complex in reality than on paper. As with any large-scale task, it is necessary to base oneself on data (field surveys, interviews, opinion polls), carry out an analysis, determine action points, put in place a strategy, apply it, monitor the results and adapt it.

As employers and HR professionals, we have the power and responsibility to make a positive difference in the lives of our employees. By staying engaged, listening and implementing effective strategies, we can successfully navigate through the challenges of the ‘Brown Out’ and build a corporate culture that is resilient, supportive and thriving.

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