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Feel “bored out of your mind” at work? You’re not alone and change is possible

By Dr. Camille Preston, Business Psychologist, Leadership Expert July 27, 2022

In 2016, Frédéric Desnard, once a manager at a Paris-based perfume manufacturer, took legal action against his former employer, allegedly because this job was so boring it had deteriorated his mental health. Recently, Desnard was awarded compensation, though an investigation revealed that boredom was likely only one factor in his decline. Still, Desnard’s case raised an important point. How many employees are “boring out” and to what extent are leaders and organizations responsible for ensuring this doesn’t continue to happen?

DEFINING AND MEASURING BOREDOM

Depending on who you ask, boredom hasn’t always existed. Historian Patricia Meyer Spacks suggests the concept didn’t emerge until the eighteenth century and may be linked to the changing nature of work and the related rise of the leisure class. Classicist Peter Toohey disagrees, suggesting the concept was already circulating in late Antiquity.

Whether boredom started in the 1st century or 18th century, there is little question that it is both challenging to define, seems to inflict a large portion of the population, and has been especially prevalent during the pandemic. Given the known negative side effects of boredom, its growing prevalence is something we can’t afford to ignore.

Psychologists who study boredom have found that it is associated with a host of negative and self-destructive behaviors, including but not limited to overeating and other behaviors associated with self-harm. One 2010 study even concluded that people with high levels of boredom die younger than those who don’t report boredom.

Other studies have found that boredom doesn’t simply impact the individuals experiencing boredom but also the people with whom they interact. A 2016 study on boredom in the nursing profession, for example, found that chronic boredom is associated with higher rates of error, adverse patient outcomes, and decreased productivity.

While generally viewed in a negative light, some researchers suggest that boredom may have an upside. Shane W. Bench and Heather C. Lench (2013) observe that although the “experience of boredom should be negative and aversive” it also plays a role in “creating a desire to change from the current state and avoid future states of boredom.” On this basis, they conclude, “boredom is a discrete functional emotion, and serves to encourage people to seek new goals and experiences.”

Fortunately, whether boredom is entirely negative or holds at least some potential to help drive change, it is generally in our control as employees and managers and leaders.

HOW EMPLOYEES CAN AVOID “BORING-OUT” AT WORK

  • Build self-awareness – Look in the mirror. Is it your job or something else that is boring you? Or, are you the type of person who always has to be doing something new and is resistant to slowing down and taking time to reflect? Either way, your job may not be the primary obstacle.
  • Seek stretch positions – Start looking for stretches to get yourself back into the learning zone. If your employer isn’t providing these stretches, create them for yourself. If the situation is persistent, you may want to start exploring a new position. Do whatever it takes to ensure you keep stretching, learning, and growing on the job.
  • Map your priorities – Take time to reflect on your priorities by developing one- and three-year plans. Dream big! Start by imagining your best year ever (not something you’re already certain you can obtain). Then, align your daily actions with your new and ambitious goals.
  • Stay clear on the outcome, stay flexible on the approach – There are nearly always multiple ways to reach an outcome. By staying clear on the outcome but flexible on the approach, it is often more possible to bring increased agency and autonomy to even the most repetitive tasks.

HOW MANAGERS AND LEADERS CAN MITIGATE “BORE-OUT SYNDROME”

  • Ensure the right people are occupying the right roles –  When people are bored on the job, it is all too often because they have landed in the wrong role or been in the same role for too long. When this happens, employees stagnate and sometimes “bore out,” and this is not just bad for individuals. Given that boredom is associated with higher levels of error, poorer outcomes, and decreased productivity, putting the wrong people in the wrong job roles also has a profound impact on teams and entire organizations. Managers and leaders committed to mitigating “bore-out syndrome” first need to audit their teams to ensure they have the right people doing the right jobs. In part, this means ensuring that everyone has access to an appropriate “stretch position” so they are constantly growing on the job.
  • Give employees more autonomy, especially when engaged in repetitive tasks – Sometimes, repetitive and potentially boring tasks are unavoidable at work. Yet, even in these instances, managers and leaders can mitigate the effects of this work. Research suggests that when task autonomy is low, boredom results in greater frustration than when task autonomy is high. As a result, one potential way to reduce the likelihood of employees “boring out” is to grant higher autonomy to them when they must engage in tasks that are repetitive or monotonous.
  • Automate the most monotonous tasks where possible – Many people fear automation and the impact it will have on their jobs. While many of these fears are legitimate, automation also has one key benefit: The easiest tasks to automate are the ones that happen repeatedly. Where possible, put monotonous tasks on autopilot and free up the humans on your team to do the work machines will never be able to do, at least not do well.

While “boring out” may not be as widespread or serious as burning out in the workplace, it is a growing problem. Fortunately, in most cases, individual employees and their managers and leaders can avoid “bore-out syndrome” by building self-awareness, pursuing and creating stretch positions, and changing the conditions under which the most repetitive tasks are carried out.

 

Dr. Camille Preston founded AIM Leadership in 2004 with the vision of applying the fundamentals of psychology to support leadership in high-growth, high-pressure business environments. Camille is a pioneer in business psychology. At the forefront of applying both individual and systems-based approaches in new ways, she supports CEOs and their teams to triumph over the challenges in disrupted, complex workplaces. Working with Camille, clients learn how to effectively map priorities, change behaviors to increase influence, and optimize holistic systems (individual + team + organization) to drive results. Most importantly, Camille helps clients dig deep to identify and resolve any underlying causes preventing their success.
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