Boredom a ‘new stress,’ says researcher

Undemanding workload can lead to lost concentration, mistakes, turnover
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/04/2012

They might look content and engaged sitting at their desks, but one-quarter of office workers suffer from chronic boredom, according to a study out of the United Kingdom.

“Boredom is kind of a new stress,” said author Sandi Mann, a senior lecturer at the School of Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire.

The results are not surprising considering boredom is the second-most suppressed emotion in the workplace, after anger, said Mann, who has done other studies on emotions. And some people have a personality trait called boredom proneness, which means they have a greater tendency to be bored.

“Some people can tolerate repetitive routine more than others,” she said. “This partly explains why it is some people find some work boring and other people quietly do it — some people can stock shelves all day long.”

Boredom can exact a high toll in the workplace. Almost one-half of the 102 office workers surveyed said boredom could make them leave their jobs. Almost 80 per cent said being bored causes them to lose concentration and more than 50 per cent said it leads them to make mistakes.

“That’s probably one of the most common symptoms of boredom, the inability to maintain concentration on the task at hand,” said Mann.

Those kinds of issues are pretty serious in a workforce, said Margot Uson, president of HR consulting firm Alterna-
Solutions in Montreal.

“They’re going to start causing absenteeism; they’re going to potentially drive up your benefit bills because of additional use of the benefits.”

To combat boredom, many workers seek out unhealthy foods such as chocolate or coffee, and they are more likely to drink alcohol at the end of a boring day, found the study.

Boredom could also lead to a significant amount of stress, which often leads to illness, said David Sissons, a vice-president at management consulting firm Hay Group in Toronto.

“It’s likely to have quite negative consequences for the individual but also for the organization in terms of trying to get done what needs to get done — so outcomes and outputs.”

Possible causes

So what, exactly, is causing the boredom? An undemanding workload is the most significant reason, found Mann.

“The problem is that people may be getting more work to do because of cutbacks, but it might not be work that’s stimulating. So if work is already boring, and they’re just getting more of that, then that’s not going to stimulate,” she said. “Most people think boredom is not having enough to do but, actually, it’s not having enough to do that’s interesting, appealing.”

And people’s expectations have changed because of the way they were brought up, expecting to be stimulated and have things done for them, said Mann.

“We’ve grown up in this, what I call, ‘whizzy-whizzy-bang-bang society’ where everything is fast and furious and entertaining and stimulating,” she said. “Despite living in a very interesting time and having so many things to occupy us, people seem more bored than ever.”

With different generations of workers, perhaps things aren’t changing fast enough for younger employees, said Uson. And companies are not spending enough time trying to ensure employees are engaged.

“This seems to be the difficulty — once the concept of being loyal to your employer kind of disappeared with all of the downsizings and all of the mergers and acquisitions, and various things have caused people to lose jobs over the last couple of decades, loyalty seems to not be there anymore, understandably. I think that probably people are coming into work and it’s ‘just a job,’ it’s not something they aspire to like they might have done in the past.”

Employees might also be unhappy they have no impact or influence at work, or they aren’t learning new skills or developing their careers, said Sissons.

“All of those would be key drivers of employee engagement.”

What employers can do

To combat the issue, employers should screen for boredom-proneness so the wrong people aren’t selected for more tedious jobs, said Mann, citing a 1986 scale created by University of Oregon psychologists Richard Farmer and Norman Sundberg.

However, there are risks to this type of screening because there are also positives to people prone to boredom, such as creativity, she said.

“A lot of these repetitive jobs are very entry level and if you’re an organization where people work their way up, you could screen out boredom-prone people. And it could actually be boredom-prone people have a lot to offer the organization as they get higher up.”

From a recruitment standpoint, employers want to make sure they get the right people for the job, said Sissons.

“Some of it may be the psychological makeup, but a lot of it would be to actually try and find people who actually enjoy the nature of the work that they do.”

Employee surveys, strong leadership working closely with teams and 360-degree assessments can also assess employee engagement, he said.

“There’s a variety of feedback mechanisms organizations could use to make sure they’re gauging, on a regular basis, whether they’re effectively using their employees because boredom, essentially, is a result of ineffectively using people.”

Employers probably aren’t seeing boredom to the extent it’s actually there, said Uson, and the old-fashioned notion of management walking around and talking to employees is still valid, though somewhat lacking.

To combat boredom, employers should look at programs such as empowerment — allowing employees to structure some of the work themselves — job rotation and multi-skilling, said Mann. Car manufacturers, for example, teach workers how to assemble more than one part of a vehicle.

“It’s often better for people to be involved in building the whole car rather than building a door every day because they can find more meaning and satisfaction in putting a whole car together.”

Regular training is another way to stimulate people, said Uson.

“The more you can teach an employee, the more the employee’s willing to learn,” she said. “Working to do the job-sharing or job swaps and creating an environment where employees want this change and that they are secure in the fact the company is going to help them develop those skills...goes a long way to making an employee want to come into work in the morning.”

And employers should keep in mind some boredom is not always a bad thing, said Mann.

“Being bored is like all emotions — it has a purpose. It stops us over-focusing on things,” she said. “Boredom is there to protect us and serve us... It also alerts us when things aren’t right in our world. If we’re bored at work, it alerts us we need to make changes.”

Sometimes, boredom is part of the job, as it is for firefighters who may face moments of terror when called to duty, said Sissons.

“If it’s specific to just allowing them to decompress for a while, it may actually be beneficial.”

However, Uson said she doesn’t think it’s good to have people zone out, especially if it means they are talking on the phone or texting and not creating a good atmosphere at work.

“I don’t think some of the behaviours that come with boredom are very productive, obviously not for the people themselves or the people around them — it could be damaging. I would rather encourage employees, if they can’t focus, to get up, get a breath of fresh air, get something healthy to eat or do, for five or 10 minutes, then come back and work.”

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