The Psychology of Workplace Boredom

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Forbes asks if it’s “the new productivity killer;” Cachinko calls it “the silent killer of employee morale;” CNN says it’s “the new stress.” Just what is plaguing so many employees throughout the world? Boredom. “It’s repetitiveness that’s the culprit” says Angelo Kinichi, a management professor at Arizona State University. As we have known for a long time, a lack of variety and monotony leads to boredom (Smith, 1981), but monotony is really in the eye of the beholder (Shackleton, 1981). While boredom may intuitively feel like a relatively trivial subject at first, just think of all the doctors and peacekeepers who deal with saving lives, as well as the productivity that’s at stake for every other job. Boredom is a serious issue.

Challenging vs. Boring

Neuropsychologist Richard Chaifetz (CEO of ComPsych, the world’s biggest provider of employee assistance programs) says it’s all about being challenged. It’s not that people have nothing to do at work – they might be busier than ever. But the real question is… busy with what? “Often with layoffs,” he says, “the type of work that’s doled out you wouldn’t need additional training to do. If it’s boring work, it just becomes more burdensome.” Indeed, the cost of such extreme boredom is not just discomfort. Results range from personal dissatisfaction and reduced productivity to making substantial errors and major accidents.

Senior psychology lecturer Sandi Mann, from England’s University of Central Lancashire, claims that boredom is the second most commonly hidden workplace emotion, after anger. And unfortunately, the state of the current global economy is only making matters worse.

Mark Royal, who authored “The Enemy of Engagement” says that good employees are becoming increasingly frustrated because “the tough economy has made it riskier and more difficult to change jobs, keeping them in the same place doing the same things for so long that they end up feeling stuck.” As Forbes reports:

Concurrently, shifting market demands and the fast pace of change may mean that employees who once were a good fit for a position now no longer are. “The role is not allowing him to do what he can do best,” [Royal] says. “So he feels frustrated, and the company is losing out.”

According to Royal, workers tend to suffer in silence because they want to be seen as good employees, but managers don’t recognize the problem. To combat this, Royal recommends that employes speak up, and the employers start conversations about what would help them feel more engaged and productive at work. But the challenge of having employees stay focused at work will take more than just a book. The problem may be more pervasive than you think.

A Gallup poll in 2011 found that 71% of American workers reported being either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their jobs. Statistically, highly educated and middle-aged workers were the most disengaged and unenthusiastic about their work. In fact, even high-performing professionals can engage in very antisocial behaviours under such conditions.

Boring Battles

Last year, Mark de Rond of Cambridge Judge Business School (England) worked with a team of surgeons for six weeks in Britain’s military base (Camp Bastion) in Afghanistan. He went to investigate teamwork in order to determine which teams are effective and why.

The most effective teams he has studied to date, Dr de Rond was surprised to see how unstable surgical teams become when there is not enough work to go round. [. . .] “The problem is when sometimes days go by and they are inactive. It’s bad news for the surgeons because there is not much else to do aside from a bit of fitness. These are people who are programmed to work hard and they find it very difficult to sit still.” They become reflective, says Dr de Rond, about the war and the relative futility of a lot of the work they do, especially with local nationals.

Boredom is actually not a straightforward emotion, and sometimes it is filled with emotional contradictions (Loukidou, 2008). In the following article from CNN, see why de Rond describes the medics – whom he respects greatly – as “big bears.”

In his first week, de Rond saw 174 casualties arrive, observed 23 amputations and 134 hours of operating. A good proportion were local children. Although the work is mentally and emotionally demanding, the surgeons are “brutally effective,” he says.

“I don’t think I’ve seen teams more effective than when someone’s bleeding out in Bastion. It’s almost beautiful to watch. They’re so very composed; it’s so noise-free. The problem is when people don’t have anything to do,” says de Rond.

According to de Rond, although there are days when no casualties come in, because the surgeons are on call around the clock, they can never really relax. As they wait for helicopters to bring in casualties, they feel guilty for wishing for more work. They start to compete with each other, become critical of each other’s efforts, and become reflective about the futility of it all. “As they become unhappy, they become like big bears — you just don’t want to be around them,” de Rond says.

It probably comes as no surprise to hear the findings of a paper published earlier this year showing that when people are bored, they tend to find ways to stay stimulated (Skowronski, 2012). But perhaps nowhere is workplace boredom a more important thing to understand than on the battlefield.

In 2007, Annilee Game published a study on the relationship between workplace boredom and health and safety. She found that “high boredom-copers reported better well-being and greater compliance with organisational safety rules compared with low boredom-copers. Relative to low boredom-copers, high boredom-copers tended to cope with boredom in ways that were more functional for themselves and the organisation.”

What Can be Done?

According to de Rond, giving people something to care about more than themselves is the solution. Camp Bastion was full of examples.

“You’ve got casualties coming in who will die if you don’t do something quickly — that is more important than yourself, at that point. Teams work incredibly effectively when that happens,” he says.

To replicate this effect, leaders need to explain to teams “why what they do is important, who it matters to and why.” “It’s that that keeps a team focused,” de Rond says. “Otherwise it’s just work.”

And just like Royal, de Rond says that it’s important to speak up.

De Rond also believes it’s necessary for workplaces to engineer a culture of “psychological safety” in which “it’s okay to ask questions.” [. . .]

“Most people would suspect that if you start questioning protocol, you then eat into morale.” But in an environment of psychological safety, he theorizes, “what you should see is some of the vulnerability of the people involved. It’s where people can be okay with that, instead of being defensive about it. If anything, it should really boost morale.”

The Bottom Line

Just like most of life’s social problems, one of the best things you can do to get rid of workplace boredom is to communicate. Employees shouldn’t rely on managers to initiate this because most people are giving the signals that they’re fully engaged. So if you find yourself struggling to stay engaged at work, maybe it’s time for you to speak up.

 

References:

Game, A. (2007). Workplace boredom coping: health, safety, and HR implications Personnel Review, 36 (5), 701-721 DOI: 10.1108/00483480710774007
Shackleton, V. (1981). Boredom and Repetitive Work: A Review Personnel Review, 10 (4), 30-36 DOI: 10.1108/eb055445

Skowronski, M. (2012). When the bored behave badly (or exceptionally) Personnel Review, 41 (2), 143-159 DOI: 10.1108/00483481211200006

Smith, R. P. (1981). Boredom: A Review. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 329-340, DOI: 10.1177/001872088102300308

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