This article was originally published on Forbes on 26 July 2022.
Employee burnout is top of mind for employers on the heels of the great resignation or great reshuffle. A recent McKinsey survey reports high levels of burnout and distress amongst employees, with 74% of HR leaders in the U.S. committing to make mental health a top priority. But what if burnout isn't the top problem at work we should be worrying about? What if it is burnout's opposite state — boredom — that's the real insidious threat to wellbeing?
"Boreout" at work is chronic boredom, and studies have shown it can cause depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia and higher turnover. Boredom is an emotional state characterized by feeling unstimulated, unfocused and restless, yet lacking the desire to engage. Or in short — boredom exists when we are mentally idle. While individual differences in how prone we are to boredom exist, everyone has felt it at one point or another at work. This boredom matters because a Korn Ferry survey claims that boredom is the top reason why people leave their jobs.
Boredom is brought on by a combination of factors. It can be a lack of stimulation, i.e. we find our work uninteresting and unengaging. Or perhaps people don't have enough work to do — too much leisure time can also bring on boredom. It's also compounded by a mismatch between expectations and reality. The New Yorker writes that "modern capitalism multiplied amusements and consumables, while undermining spiritual sources of meaning that had once been conferred more or less automatically. Expectations grew that life would be, at least some of the time, amusing, and people, including oneself, interesting—and so did the disappointment when they weren't." One can also argue that modern life has also brought on entire industries where people secretly believe that the job they work doesn't need to be done.
Boredom at work is also closely related to what Adam Grant calls "languishing." He defines it as a sense of stagnation and emptiness — even while energy exists to complete tasks if one so desires. Languishing is not as severe as depression, but it does hamper the ability to focus and the motivation to work.
It's time for "boreout" to join the workplace mental health conversation in much the same way burnout, presentism, and work/life balance have become primary topics
#1: Break up tedious tasks and days. When we do our work is more flexible than ever, thanks to hybrid working. Tackling tedious tasks when energy naturally lowers can be a nice mental break from more creative and strategic work. These tasks do not have to be completed all in one sitting, either. Scheduling tedious tasks for a few hours in the morning, going for a long walk or doing something else that provides a much-needed dopamine hit, and then returning to finish the tedious tasks at the end of the day can help break up the boredom.
#2: Cultivate psychological safety so employees can speak up. Admitting you're bored or unengaged at work is taboo in many organizations, but it shouldn't be. Instead, speaking up signals to managers that someone is unhappy or under-utilized, and gives them time to course correct. Managers can help identify new areas within the business for someone to support or other such novel experiences to provide a change. They can also encourage employees to pursue outside interests that benefit both employee and employer, such as mentoring, public speaking, or taking on a new course.
#3: Double down on purpose-driven and challenging work. Finding meaningful work is not solely the responsibility of employees. Leaders should regularly connect what people do in their day-to-day work to its larger impact. Seeing impact and progress is one of the most important factors for motivation and wellbeing —if not the most important factor. Leaders should also spot opportunities to create more challenging work to increase mental engagement. This can take the form of joining new committees or task forces or perhaps being asked to help solve a complex problem someone would otherwise not be involved in.
#4: Encourage job sharing and/or job crafting. One quick fix is taking on more varied tasks, and a way to do that is via job sharing or job crafting. Job crafting, a concept first introduced in 2001 by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton, is when someone proactively redesigns their job to better align with their interests, while still ensuring the fundamental requirements of the role are still performed. For example, someone interested in developing their programming skills could increase the amount of time they work with online applications. Job sharing is when two people share the same job within a company, working on a part-time basis. Someone looking to combat boredom at work could theoretically work two different jobs on a part-time basis to introduce more novelty and task-switching into their day.
#5: Set aside time on the clock for passion projects. Google is probably the most well-known company that does this, with their philosophy that employees should set aside 20% of their time to explore or work on innovative projects.
By broadening one's horizons and setting aside time for creativity, one might be able to break out of the monotony of boredom at work and find inspiration once again.