Research shows that burnout’s lesser-known cousin ‘boreout’ can cause considerable harm to individuals and organisations.
Your eyes glaze over as you will yourself to keep reading through a dense, uninspiring report. You notice your mind wandering in a company presentation as the CEO drones on. You stare blankly at the page or screen in front of you, counting down the minutes until the day is finally over.
We’ve all likely been bored at work at some point in time. Research from recruitment firm Robert Half shows that managers think around 87 per cent of their people spend around six hours each week feeling bored.
Other data suggests this is a global issue. In 2016, 43 per cent of workers in the US were bored and this made them two times more likely to want to quit their jobs.
Of course, being bored at work is sometimes a necessary evil. The Robert Half report noted excessive meetings and the nature of certain tasks as being two of the major predictors of boredom at work. While you can work to reduce the amount of meetings, we still have to do ‘boring’ tasks from time to time.
It becomes a much bigger problem, however, when boredom strays into chronic territory – some experts call this ‘boreout’.
What is boreout?
When consultants Rothlin and Werder published their book on ‘boreout’ in 2007, the study of boredom in the workplace was in its infancy.
But the term ‘boreout’ – which the duo defined as profound boredom rooted in a sense of meaninglessness – resonated with several academics.
One such researcher, assistant professor Lotta Harju from the EM Lyon Business School in France, has devoted much of the past decade to studying boreout.
“Boreout is fundamentally unpleasant,” she says. “And it’s not the same as being relaxed at work, which is a positive experience.”
In fact, finding work meaningless, and being chronically bored as a result, can impact employees’ health in many of the same ways that the better-known burnout does.
For example, a 2021 study of government workers in Turkey found that those who were chronically bored at work also suffered from high rates of anxiety and stress.
In the past 18 months, remote work has reportedly amplified feelings of meaninglessness for many workers, contributing to what is being called the ‘Big Quit’ or ‘The Great Resignation’.
According to Harju, boreout can weigh down an organisation, affecting productivity and overall performance just as significantly as burnout does.
“This is not a problem for employees alone to worry about,” she says. It’s a conversation that HR professionals need to put on the executive’s agenda.
We’ve made strides in addressing mental health and wellbeing at work since the onset of the pandemic, so it’s important employers continue to elevate their strategies, which includes addressing chronic boredom.
The impacts of being bored at work
Harju’s concerns about the impacts of boreout aren’t just based on a sense she has, they’re rooted in comprehensive research.
One of the largest boredom studies to date, a 2014 survey of more than 11,000 Finish workers that Harju spearheaded, found that job boredom increased stress levels and decreased participant’s self-reported indicators of good health.
It also increased employees’ turnover and early-retirement intentions. Korn Ferry data supports this finding, with its 2018 ‘Breaking Boredom’ report highlighting boredom as the top reason people looked for a new job, according to a survey of nearly 5000 employees.
“No matter if the work is busy or challenging, if it feels like it’s for nothing, people will bore out doing it.” – Lotta Harju, assistant professor, EM Lyon Business School.
Separate research suggests it leaves employees feeling disillusioned, distracted and “overworked [yet] under-employed”.
And, in 2016, Harju and her colleagues conducted a study that showed workers with boreout were less likely to go looking for new challenges at work, meaning company-wide innovation suffers.
“You can suffer from boreout and still be able to do your job to the [expected] standard,” she says. “It’s just that you’re probably not giving anymore than that. For organisations, that’s a real issue.”
Now is the time for organisations to take a good look at boreout, says Harju, as employees’ attitudes about work are shifting quite dramatically and this will only become more profound in the coming years as millennials and Gen Z employees make up the most significant portion of the workforce.
“Many workers today have the expectation that they should be fulfilled at work, in a way that previous generations maybe didn’t,” she says.
There are also substantial bottom line impacts when a large majority of your workers are bored out. Forbes magazine has suggested that boredom at work in the US costs up to $450 and $550 billion each year when you factor in turnover costs and opportunity loss.
Identifying and addressing boreout
Boreout is under-diagnosed for two reasons, says Harju.
First, few doctors or HR professionals are familiar with the concept. Even workers suffering from boreout may struggle to define what is afflicting them.
For example, Harju recounts the story of an office worker who contacted her after the Finnish boreout study received media coverage in Scandinavia.
“She had worked at the same job for some time, and while there was nothing wrong per se, she had been feeling like a ‘squeezed lemon’ at work, meaning unmotivated and uninspired,” Harju says.
“She described the situation as ‘terrible’, but when she had seen an occupational physiologist about it, the doctor had diagnosed [her with] exhaustion and [gave] her sick leave.”
The woman was certain she did not have burnout, nor did she find the sick leave helpful. “But because boreout is not really understood as a workplace condition, there was not a lot of help or guidance available for her,” says Harju.
“She reached out to me because learning about boreout through the study had enabled her to understand what had been her issue.”
Harju believes another reason boreout is under-diagnosed is because the condition has shameful connotations.
Unlike burnout, which is rooted in values that modern-day organisations often champion, such as ambition, boreout stems from feelings that society tells us we shouldn’t have at work: a lack of motivation, disinterest in our employer, and so on.
That makes chronically bored employees less likely to describe themselves as such.
Instead, the onus falls on HR and managers to identify boreout by considering indicators such as employees’ engagement with other areas of the organisation, if they’re only doing the bare minimum and increases in absenteeism.
As for addressing it, Harju stresses that keeping employees busy is not enough.
“No matter if the work is busy or challenging, if it feels like it’s for nothing, people will bore out doing it,” she says.
Instead, the focus should be on assuring employees that their contribution is valued and valuable.
“We all know by now that paychecks at the end of the month and a Christmas party once a year are not sufficient ways to demonstrate that our employees are valued.”
More effective is creating a “culture of thanks” in which the value that employees generate is clearly acknowledged by supervisors.
Other tips to combat boredom at work, include:
- Ensure there is diversity in employees’ day-to-day tasks. If there’s a boring, repetitive task that sits within someone’s remit, what’s something more stimulating that you can offer them to balance that out? It could be something as small as shadowing a more senior employee who is working on an interesting project.
- Stretch and challenge employees. The Robert Half research suggested that 31 per cent of managers think their people are bored because they’re not challenged enough. When we dwell in our comfort zone, it’s very easy to lack the inspiration to try new things and take calculated risks.
- Cut down unnecessary meetings. This point sounds like a broken record these days, but the Robert Half research shows 37 per cent of workers were bored due to “poorly managed” or simply too many meetings. Avoid meeting for the sake of meeting, and when you do need to get people together, be strategic with how you use that time. You can read HRM’s article titled ‘8 ways to make your passive meetings more participative’ here.
- Professional development is important, says Harju. You want employees to feel they have a goal to work towards. This will help to add more meaning into their role.
“It is quite well understood that professional development is good for employee performance, because learning new things keeps us stimulated. If employees feel like they can develop and learn in their roles – that they can grow – then boreout can be prevented.”
Take steps to help your workforce thrive with AHRI’s short course ‘Mental Health at work‘. Sign up to attend on either 20 September or 4 November, 2021.
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