Being bored in your job may not seem the worst problem ever, certainly not in comparison to being overworked and overwhelmed, but the impact can be surprisingly similar. When workers are suffering from bore-out – which is boredom’s version of burnout – they feel stressed and depressed.
Bore-out isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. It was identified years ago by two Swiss business consultants, Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin, whose theory was that it occurs not only because people don’t have enough to do, but also because the tasks required of them aren’t meaningful or challenging enough. Bored workers can become so unmotivated that productivity drops, absenteeism increases and business is affected.
Explains Helena Cooper-Thomas, professor of organisational behaviour at the Auckland University of Technology’s faculty of business: “We want to feel like we’ve got a sense of purpose when we go to work, that we’ve achieved something worthwhile and used our skills and knowledge. It’s pretty soul-destroying if we don’t.”
Being super-busy and working crazy hours is almost a badge of honour these days, whereas being stuck in a dull job and ground down by tedium definitely isn’t. And so casualties of bore-out tend to do their best to hide what is going on. They may stretch out tasks for as long as possible, waste time on the internet doing things unrelated to work, send personal messages, take lots of coffee breaks – whatever it takes to fill the day. And their day may be a long one. Unmotivated employees often put on a show of commitment, arriving early, leaving late and eating lunch at their desks so it appears as if they are working, even though they may be achieving very little.
However, bore-out now seems to be coming out of hiding. Recently, a French worker took legal action against his employers, claiming that his dull job caused him to suffer serious depression. Frederic Desnard worked for a perfume company where he claimed he was “mise en placard” (put in the closet), a phrase that refers to giving employees little or no work, or menial tasks. Having been deprived of his original responsibilities, he described his working life as “a descent into hell”. A court in Paris awarded him €50,000 ($88,400) in compensation.
Studies looking at boredom may be relatively thin on the ground but they are still worrying, with one finding that it can even increase your risk of dying. Back in the 1980s, researchers from University College London interviewed 7500 public servants aged between 35 and 55. In 2009, they looked them up again and found that those who had reported being bored were 2.5 times more likely to have died of a heart problem than those who hadn’t. The researchers believed this was because bored, unfulfilled people are more likely to adopt unhealthy habits such as drinking, smoking or taking drugs.
We humans don’t cope well with monotony because our brains are built to engage and focus. Many of us would rather do something unpleasant than nothing at all, according to researchers from the University of Virginia. They found that 18 out of 42 students who were left in a room for 15 minutes with nothing to do gave themselves at least one electric shock to alleviate the boredom.
Boredom is most common in passive jobs where people have low demands and low control and are left feeling disconnected and unvalued.
“It is linked with poorer attitudes towards work, lower job satisfaction, lower sense of organisational loyalty, and increased thoughts of quitting the job – but also, perhaps more concerningly, there is evidence of a link with negative workplace behaviours such as theft and sabotage,” says Cooper-Thomas.
A bored worker may not necessarily communicate the way they are feeling.
“It’s a hard conversation for employees to have with their managers, especially at the moment, with people concerned with job security,” the professor points out. “They may not be enjoying it much but they do appreciate having an income.”
Unfortunately, many jobs are by necessity unexciting, particularly those in offices and factories. Preventing bore-out in those circumstances involves strategies to help people feel as if they are making a meaningful contribution and have some control over their working lives.
Perhaps the structure of the workplace can be changed so that people are rotated through the more boring tasks over the course of a day. If the same worker has to do them, then possibly they could be allowed to do other things, too, such as listen to music. There is an interesting case study of a French nuclear plant where, for those monitoring the equipment, a normal day is dull but accurate work is crucial. Allowing them to play Scrabble, a quiet game with enough time between turns for workers to get up and check their consoles, was seen as a way to help them remain focused.
"Job-crafting” is all about finding the opportunities in the work we do and it can be as simple as reframing the way we think about it, says Katharina Naswall, a professor of psychology at the University of Canterbury whose focus is on employee wellbeing and healthy workplaces. She cites a 2001 US study that looked at hospital cleaners and discovered those who viewed themselves as an integral part of the healing team found their work more meaningful than those who felt they were just pushing a mop around, and their wellbeing was better as a result.
Changing the way we think about our jobs needs the support of the managers and organisations we work for. “But it probably wouldn’t cost too much and it’s under-appreciated how important it is and how much impact it can have,” says Näswall. “The key is that there has to be autonomy and control, opportunities people can engage in if they choose. If they feel forced then that’s not a good thing.”
Beating bore-out isn’t about keeping workers frantically busy every single moment of the working day – the right amount can boost our creativity.
“Boredom isn’t always bad,” explains Näswall. “If it’s between periods of busyness then it frees cognitive resources. So if you have an hour of downtime then you might be more productive.”