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Boredom in the Workplace

Mastering Boredom in the Workplace

Boredom in the workplace often goes unnoticed, yet it can lead to significant issues like "cyberloafing" and burnout. However, there's a bright side: with proper management, boredom can also bring benefits. Here's your guide to mastering boredom - and its more serious cousin, "boreout" (the combination of boredom and burnout) in the workplace.

Understanding the causes of boredom is the first step. Whether it's repetitive tasks, lack of challenges, or low engagement, pinpointing these reasons helps in crafting effective solutions. Unchecked, boredom at work can harm productivity and increase turnover. But fear not - boredom can also inspire creativity and improve problem-solving.

Recognizing boredom as a workplace issue is crucial. Treating it alongside burnout and stress enables proactive measures for growth. Helping employees find purpose, offering passion projects, making tasks enjoyable, and providing autonomy all enhance the work environment. By mastering boredom, organizations can turn it into a source of positive change.

Causes of Boredom

In general, workplace boredom occurs when employees perceive their tasks as monotonous, unchallenging, or meaningless. This can happen due to several factors, including:

  • Repetitive Work: Jobs that involve repetitive and routine tasks without variation.

  • Underutilization of Skills: When employees feel they are working beneath their skills and abilities.

  • Lack of Autonomy: Limited control over how and when tasks are completed.

  • Poor Job Fit: Misalignment between an employee's interests and job responsibilities. An unclear or overly rigid job description can contribute to this.

Because there are different causes, it’s important to understand that there is more than one kind of boredom. The strategies your business uses to manage boredom will thus depend on the kind(s) of boredom your team is experiencing. The Harvard Business Review cites several types, including:

  • Indifferent boredom: When the person is indifferent to and withdraws from the external world.

  • Calibrating boredom: When the mind wanders.

  • Searching boredom: When the person is seeking but not finding an activity or interest to engage in.

  • Reactive boredom: When the person is reacting to repetitive and tedious tasks.

  • Apathetic boredom: When the person lacks motivation.

Problems Caused by Boredom

When workers experience boredom, their productivity falls because they’ll engage in non-productive activities like cyberloafing, where employees engage in non-work-related web browsing. Additionally, there is also a strong link between boredom and burnout.

When the two combine, researchers call it boreout. It’s especially damaging when it continues over the long term. “Boreout is chronic boredom,” explains Lotta Harju, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at EM Lyon Business School in France. “That sums it up.”

This kind of serious, chronic boredom has the same net effects as burnout, increasing employee turnover, early retirement intentions, poor self-rated health, and stress symptoms. A Korn Ferry survey, for example, found that boredom is the top reason why people leave their jobs. Other research has found that boredom is linked to increased absenteeism and intentions to leave the business.

The Silver Linings of Boredom

Boredom does potentially have some silver linings. It gives the brain a needed break and protects against overwhelm or overstimulation. Boredom can also open the door to invention, innovation, and creativity.

John Eastwood, a psychologist and co-author of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredomexplains that when our brains are not being used to full capacity, creativity kicks in to fill the empty space. Similarly, a 2013 study showed that small doses of boredom prime our brains to perform well on convergent thinking tasks—AKA problem-solving.

Moreover, boredom can be a natural side effect of slack (unused capacity) in the workplace, which can be a good thing (up to a point). If maximum efficiency means people are working 100% of the time and getting 100% of work done (good), it also means there’s no capacity to take on new work or to grow as a business(bad).

Adding unused capacity, however, is likely to produce some form of boredom. There’s a careful balance to be had here, but it means that boredom can be a necessary byproduct of gaining the ability to grow, accommodate unexpected work tasks, and—perhaps ironically—avoid the burnout that results from constant overwork and never getting a break.

Managing Boredom for the Better

Know What Type(s) of Boredom You’re Facing:

Anti-boredom strategies will only work if they are well matched to the type of boredom prevalent in your work environment. Once you’ve accurately identified the types of boredom affecting your teams, you can implement the right responses.

Recognize Boredom as a Workplace Issue alongside burnout, stress, and other wellness concerns:

“We need a shift in thinking about employee wellbeing merely in terms of stress and burnout,” argues “Bringing boreout into this discussion could thus broaden our understanding of what makes a good work life.” In other words, boredom should be recognized as a potential mental health concern.

Help Employees Find Purpose in Their Work:

“To improve [boredom] would require finding some purpose or inspiration in what one is doing,” Harju says. Fahri Özsungur, an associate professor of economics at Mersin University, Turkey, agrees: “Giving meaning to the job is not just up to the employee,” he says, “instead it’s up to management to create an office culture that makes people feel valuable.”

Make Work Tasks More Interesting or Enjoyable:

If making tasks more interesting isn't possible, break up the more tedious tasks. This can help maintain engagement and prevent monotony. Alternatively, redesign jobs to include a variety of tasks and responsibilities that utilize different skills and abilities.

Offset Tedious Work with Passion Projects:

Allow employees time to work on projects of personal interest, similar to how Google allows employees to spend up to a day out of every week—the so-called 20% Project—working on innovative side projects. This not only combats boredom but can lead to new ideas and innovations.

Give Employees More Autonomy Over Their Work:

Give employees more control over their work processes and decisions. Empowerment can increase engagement and reduce feelings of boredom. This way, workers can better decide for themselves when, how, and under what circumstances they approach their work tasks. Increased autonomy can lead to higher job satisfaction and reduced boredom.

Because boredom in the workplace isn’t a cut-and-dry issue—sometimes it’s an unavoidable and even helpful experience—it requires a carefully thought-out approach to address effectively. Recognizing and addressing boredom is not just about preventing negative outcomes but also about leveraging its potential to foster creativity and innovation. Regardless, proactively managing boredom not only benefits employees by improving their job satisfaction and well-being but also helps organizations thrive in a competitive business environment.

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