Monday, October 31, 2011

Apple #556: Bored at Work

For many years now, I've used Sitemeter to keep details of the traffic that comes to me site. to their data, I am well aware that a lot of people are looking at the Daily Apple during the work day. That suits me fine; in fact, it warms the cockles of my heart. This is because my original goal in creating this blog was to give people who are stressed out or overburdened or otherwise taxed by their jobs a place to go to read about everyday, relatively unstressful things. Learn something new for a bit, then go on back to work. So it seemed that I must be fulfilling that goal.

Is this how you feel before you go surfing around and wind up at the Daily Apple?
(Photo from Your Balance)

But recently it occurred to me, maybe people are stopping by here not because they're stressed out, but because they're bored. Looking for something, anything to break up the monotony. So why not make an entry for the bored, as well as for the stressed out? (As it turns out, boredom can be a version of stress. But more on that shortly.)

Of course, since I'm all about finding answers to questions, I thought I'd take up several questions on behalf of those who are bored at work: are other people bored in their jobs too, what's causing your boredom and what can you do about it, and why should your boss care if you're bored?

(Photo from Label Girl Hype)

Boredom Defined
  • Believe it or not, researchers have had trouble defining workplace boredom. One good definition is "a transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in the current activity."
  • It's transient because if you do something else, you don't feel bored anymore. But as long as you're doing the current activity, you feel a pervasive lack of interest.

Traditionally when studying boredom, researchers focused on people working blue collar jobs. But now they recognize that office and white collar jobs can be just as unstimulating.
(Photo by Renault, from Treehugger)

Signs You're Bored at Work
  • You're tired all the time. You yawn about every 20 minutes, it seems.
  • You check the clock frequently. It seems to have hardly moved.
  • You try to focus on the task at hand, but you're uninterested and easily and willingly distracted. Tasks may take you twice as long as you know they should because you allow other things to pull you away.
  • The metaphorical needle that registers your intellectual or emotional involvement lifts only a fraction above zero all day long.
  • You find yourself doing pointless, non-job-related things at work, like looking at videos of kittens on skateboards, or playing Angry Birds, or shooting paperclips at the ceiling tile. For hours.

Is this sort of activity how you spend your time at work? Do you fantasize about the whole place crumbling down like this?
(Screen shot from Capsule Computers)

  • You imagine what you would be doing if you were at home or out with a friend or someplace else, anyplace else. The daydreams get longer and more involved as time goes on.
  • You show up later and later and you leave earlier and earlier.
  • You feel yourself "coming down with something" about once a week.
  • You find yourself looking at job ads while you're at work.
  • You check the clock again.

Another way to fill those dead zone hours.
(Photo from the Guardian)

Lots of People are Bored at Work

  • 1/3 of Britons said they were bored at work for most of the day.
  • 55% of US employees said they were "not engaged" by their work.
  • 61% of college graduates who have since taken jobs say they are regularly bored at work.
  • Boredom has been found to be the second most commonly suppressed emotion at work (I wonder what the first is).
  • Professions who report the highest rates of boredom include:
  1. Administrative/Secretarial: boredom gets a 10/10
  2. Manufacturing: 8.1/10
  3. Sales: 7.8/10
  4. Marketing: 7.7/10
  5. IT/telecommunications: 7.5/10
  6. Scientific research: 7.3/10
  7. Media: 7.1/10

People who do very technical but repetitive work, such as research lab assistants, also report high levels of boredom.
(Photo from Reuters)

  • Based on those results, it looks to me like just about every job has the potential to be boring.
  • Except maybe for teaching. Teachers gave their jobs a 4.0/10 on the boredom scale.
  • 28% of graduate TAs, however, said they were bored in their jobs. Apparently, they require something other than, or in addition to, teaching to keep them engaged.

In spite of all the brightly colored decorations and stars which are probably meant to be motivational, these people look thoroughly unenthused in their cubicle land.
(Photo from Focus)

  • Even a job you might think of as challenging could become boring. One of George W. Bush's senior advisers admitted to ducking out to the movies out of boredom. One day while out and about he ran into an official from another department. I'm not sure if the other guy was headed to the movies too, but it was an encounter they both found awkward.

Why You're Bored

"Workplaces today are increasingly automated, with faceless technology being the interface through which many tasks are completed. Many jobs in the past that involved skill use, decision-making and contact with people can now be achieved with the press of a few (boring) buttons." -- Sandi Mann

  • Job is not challenging enough. This is probably the number one cause of boredom regardless of profession. You may have a lot of stuff to do, but if none of those tasks use your intellect to the extent that you possess it, you can get mighty bored pretty quick.
  • Having work that is unchallenging can be just as stressful as having too much work or having too many expectations placed on you. With monotonous work or work that's too easy, you can wind up just as burned out, disengaged, unmotivated, exhausted, and depressed as if you had too much to do.
  • Job does not fully utilize your skills or knowledge. This is a more specialized version of the same thing. If you've been trained at some point in a certain skill -- and that skill could be anything, mouth to mouth resuscitation, gas metal arc welding, speaking and reading Portuguese -- if that skill is important to you, and your job allows it to lie fallow, you can begin to feel bored. Even if the job requires you to use several other skills that you have, the fact that that one particular skill is going unused can be bothersome. It's like having two arms but only using one. Sure, you're using one arm, but that other arm is perfectly good. Soon enough, you'll feel those muscles beginning to atrophy, and dissatisfaction and unease will set in soon enough.
  • Job is full of repetitive and uninteresting routines. Lots of manufacturing jobs fit this description, but white-collar jobs can be mindlessly repetitive too. Filling out the same forms over and over, answering the phone the exact same way every two minutes and telling people the same thing again and again, creating the same spreadsheets with slightly different numbers--all of that can get pretty old pretty fast. Jobs that require watching for infrequent events (life guarding, patrolling, workplace inspection) also fall into this category.

Even the dog hates paperwork.
(Photo by Chris Scott, from the Cheerful Monk)

  • Not enough to do. Not having enough to do can actually be more dissatisfying than having too much to do. This runs a close second on the boredom/stress scale behind not being challenged enough. 800,000 employees surveyed rated jobs that offered "too little work" lower than jobs with "too much work."
  • People notice the lack of work especially after they've had bursts of time where they had a lot to do or even too much to do. They get used to operating at a higher level of productivity, and having to drop back to extremely low levels of engagement can be all the more frustrating afterward.
  • Too many constraints. The job has so many rules, requirements, and restrictions, it's hard to get anything accomplished. Or it's too physically restrictive; you can't leave your station to walk around, or you're not allowed to talk to the people nearby. Your employer feels so much like a third world dictatorship, you're not only bored out of your mind, you're contemplating storming the walls with catapults and battering rams.
  • The confinement may be intellectual rather than physical. A lack of opportunities to learn new things, and no provisions for training or for opportunities to interact with and learn from other professionals in the industry keep you from being challenged afresh. You have probably gotten very efficient at performing your job, but you're operating at that same level and you have done so perhaps for years on end. Stagnation, boredom, a feeling of mental atrophy have taken hold.

A screenshot from The Office was inevitable.
(Photo from Rookie Pastor)

  • Too many meetings. This is a specific form of constraint which keeps people from actually accomplishing anything. 82% of white collar workers report spending nearly 1/3 of their work week in meetings of one kind or another. Keep people in a room talking about how they're going to do something and talking about how they're talking and eventually someone's either going to fall asleep or run out of there screaming.
  • Job lacks meaning. The big-picture nature of one's job or industry may not match up with your values. Say you are passionate about the rights of children, but for your job, you design cereal boxes. Making sure cereal is packaged safely and so that the cereal lasts a long time and tastes good may be beneficial to children who eat cereal. But in a bigger picture way, over time, you may begin to feel the gap between what you really care about and how you're spending your workday. Though you may be very good at designing cereal boxes and though it may pose consistently new challenges to you, the fact that you don't really care all that much about cereal boxes may lead you to disengage from the work and become bored.
  • Job is too difficult. This one is less common, but it does happen, perhaps most often among students (by the way, all of these factors can apply in the classroom as well as on the job). When students took classes that were above their comprehension levels, they had difficulty grasping the material, so very soon they had difficulty paying attention and quickly became bored.

(Demotivational poster from MotiFake)

What to Do About It

"Boredom . . . is an alerting phenomenon that all is not well and something must be done."

This is a bit of a stressful, depressing topic, isn't it? Well, hopefully these possible solutions will bring some hope to the picture.

Short term solutions
  • Intersperse activities. Instead of doing one mindless task that takes hours until you're done, try breaking it up into smaller pieces and inserting another task in between. The inserted tasks may be just as mindless, but simply bringing some variety to the picture can help. Or you may find that the interspersing activity needs to be something more lively, like talking with a colleague, or walking to the vending machine for a coffee.
  • Take breaks. Get up from your desk and walk around. Go to the water cooler and get yourself a big cup of cool water. Go outside, breathe in some fresh air. Walk around the block. My friend Angelica, who is admittedly a bit nutty, does five quick push-ups in her cubicle to wake herself up.
  • Clean up your work area. Putting away the accumulated paperwork, cleaning off your desk, organizing files, sweeping the floor where you stand every day -- these are small things that first of all burn up some of your extra time. But a clean, newly organized work environment also contributes to a sense of being refreshed. Cleaner, more organized surroundings may wake you up a bit. Maybe you'll see things in a new light, and you'll see more possibilities within your work.

(Photo from

  • Give yourself challenges. If you're supposed to enter the data for 199 reply cards an hour and you've mastered that, challenge yourself to complete 225 reply cards an hour. Perform the list of your daily tasks in alphabetical order. See if you can complete two versions of that insurance form, one in English to be filed and one in French for yourself.
  • A caution about this tip: it's possible you'll get so focused on your own self-imposed challenges that you'll lose sight of the more immediate and important goal of completing the work accurately. You want to be careful not to make your self-imposed challenges too difficult or diversionary. And since your self-imposed challenges are probably pretty meaningless, you may get bored with those soon, too. But they'll spark your brain for a little while at least.
  • Design your own rewards. Decide that if you finish filing that mountain of paperwork, you'll take yourself out to lunch. Every fifth call you field, you get to put a gold star on your desk calendar. The trick here is to choose rewards that don't wind up bankrupting you, and you'll want to alter them periodically so that even the rewards don't get old.

Here's one alternative to giving yourself gold stars.
(Photo from Xinjo)

  • Other people. Go talk to the person in the next cubicle. Form a friendship with the guy down the hall or the woman on the next floor. Socializing with someone for a little while can re-energize you and wake you up so you can go back and focus on that repetitive task again.
  • That said, in some workplaces, you may find the people around you to be boring. The things they're interested in may be things you find absolutely stultifying. If that's the case, then your boring co-workers can actually contribute to your boredom and stress.
  • Other work. If it won't get you in trouble, bring something from home to do. Read a book, write a letter to a friend, read the actual newspaper, write down the details of that invention you've been meaning to patent. Just be careful not to use company equipment to do your personal work. The advisability of this may also depend on the temperament of your boss. She may blow her stack at the sight of you knitting at your desk. Or he may be perfectly fine with you doing crossword after crossword while you wait for the phone to ring.

Find your Hobbes. Or draw him.
(Drawing by Xris at Buzznet)

Long term solutions
  • Ask for more work. As we've seen, simply increasing the workload may not be enough, especially if you're not feeling challenged by what you're already doing. But if you're underutilized and you have too much time on your hands, having more to do will help somewhat.
  • Ask your co-workers if they need help. Something they do might be slightly different than what you do, and having something different to do could perk up your interest. You'll want to be careful about how you approach people and whom you approach. Some workplaces get extremely territorial and offers to help could be regarded as efforts to steal someone else's turf. But if you phrase it so that it doesn't seem like you're taking their stuff away but rather helping them to look better in the long run, you might have better results.
  • Ask your boss for more responsibilities. Lots of people suggest phrasing this delicately. They say it's not a good idea to go to your boss and say, "I'm bored," because people have been known to get fired after saying that. It's better to come across as being proactive, solving a problem, and being willing to take on more work. Instead of going to your boss with a complaint, phrase it as an offer. Try something along the lines of, "I've found a way to be more efficient about filling in the boxes on those forms so I'm available to take on more work." Offer to take on something specific -- and new to you. For example, "I noticed that the mail room is a mess. It looks like it hasn't been cleaned in about a decade. Do you mind if I cleaned it up and possibly re-organized it too?" Or you could go Erin Brockovich and take on that weird, annoying thing that everyone has been ignoring and pushing being the filing cabinet, and it may just turn out to be something really interesting and challenging.
  • Ask your boss for more training. Learning something new, being challenged in a new way, and finding new approaches to performing old tasks can help wake up the work day. As a plus to your employer, you may learn how to be more productive, or more creative, or how to expand your products or services, and ultimately earn the company more money.
  • Seek opportunities outside of work. This isn't looking for a job elsewhere -- yet. These opportunities could be taking classes unrelated to your job, perhaps learning a new hobby or a craft or a skill. Or it could be volunteering, or joining a club, or planning an event like a block party or a reunion.

These people are volunteering to help keep their riverbanks clean and healthy. The work they're doing is probably labor-intensive and menial, but they're smiling because the work means something important to them.
(Photo from River Guardians)

Why Employers Should Care

If you're a boss and an employee comes to you asking for more work, or for work that challenges or stimulates them in new ways, believe them. It took some nerve for them to approach you with this, and they've probably already tried to live with things they way they are for quite some time. They're telling you they need more from the job, and they mean it. Just because you feel busy doesn't mean they do.

So give them what they're asking for. There are about a thousand reasons why you should.

Boredom can quickly lead to any or all of these negative consequences:
  • Poor performance
  • Increased errors
  • Accidents
  • Absenteeism
  • Stress-related illnesses
  • Increased thrill-seeking (which can lead to injuries)
  • Property damage

Here, Level of Pressure can be read as Workload. Note that the section where there is little to do and which is characterized by boredom has the lowest level of performance on the entire graph. The sweet spot of productivity is a workload that keeps you about 10% to 20% below fully occupied.
(Graph from Right Corecare)

  • Boredom "casts a pall on the whole organization and creates a demoralized de-energized atmosphere. Furthermore, it blocks creativity, which will undercut a company's ability to stay abreast of the marketplace competition," says one expert.
  • Says another, "Boredom can build like a critical mass that hurts the company's performance and market position."
  • All of these negative consequences translate directly to the bottom line. Whether it's in terms of lost revenue, decreased productivity, the cost to fix mistakes, increased insurance costs, even worker's compensation payments or liability lawsuits, as an employer, you're going to be shelling out money in one way or another if your employees are bored.
  • Eventually, you'll lose your employees altogether. 45% of hiring experts agreed that firms lost top workers because they were bored (1998).
  • 24% of office employees surveyed said the reason they looked for jobs elsewhere was because of boredom.
  • Half of employees who say they're bored consider changing not just their jobs but their professions.

Which Leads Me Back to You, the Bored Employee
  • If you've tried all the ways to wring more out of your job and that's still not doing the trick, it's probably time to find a new job.
  • That's easier said than done these days, but if nothing else, the job search will give you something challenging to do.
  • You might want to look for a job whose work is meaningful to you. The people who report being the happiest in their jobs are those who in some way serve others.

Physical therapists, clergy, firefighters, teachers, psychologists, and authors are among those who say they are happiest in their jobs.
(Photo from Building Best Body)

"The cure for boredom is curiosity." --Dorothy Parker

(Photo from Christa in New York)

Get curious and try new things! Who knows what possibilities will open up for you?

Douglas LaBier, Feeling Bored at Work? Three Reasons Why, and What Can Free You,
Psychology Today, May 3, 2010
Cynthia D. Fisher, Boredom at work: a neglected concept, Bond University ePublications, December 1, 1991
Dr. Sandi Mann, Boredom in the Workplace, Presentation for the Association of Business Psychologists, May 7, 2009 (PowerPoint slides)
Kate Hilpern, Chairmen of the Bored,
The Guardian, June 28, 2008
Sirota Survey Intelligence, Bored Employees Are More Disgruntled Than Overworked Ones, Research Finds
Career Rookie, Combating Entry-Level Boredom
Zen Habits, 30 Things to Do to Keep From Getting Bored Out of Your Skull at Work
Deborah S. Hildebrand, Career Advice, How to Overcome Boredom at Work, Preventing Burnout

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