Three Kinds Of Boredom At Work

Boredom at work can as stressful and damaging as overwork – perhaps more so.  Sometimes it creates embarrassing situations, as it did for Joel, a mid-level executive.  He felt so bored that he sneaked out of his office one afternoon to take in a movie.

When it was over, guess whom he ran into coming out of the same theater?  His boss.

“We know that 55 percent of all U.S. employees are not engaged at work. They are basically in a holding pattern. They feel like their capabilities aren’t being tapped into and utilized and therefore, they really don’t have a psychological connection to the organization,” said Curt W. Coffman, global practice leader at the Gallup Organization, as reported in the Washington Post. And Jean Martin-Weinstein, managing director of the Corporate Leadership Council, a division of the Corporate Executive Board Co., cited findings from a survey of 50,000 workers around the world who were asked questions such as: “Do you love your job? Do you love your team? Are you excited by the work you do every day?”  Thirteen percent came out saying no, no, and very much no.  “They are disaffected, because they are basically completely checked out from the work they do,” Martin-Weinstein said.

Employees who are better utilized are more fulfilled.  They work more productively.  For example, a survey by Sirota Consulting LLC of more than 800,000 employees at 61 organizations worldwide, found those with “too little work” gave an overall job satisfaction rating of 49 out of 100, while those with “too much work” had a rating of 57.  Jeffrey M. Saltzman, chief executive of Sirota, said “When you say you have too much work to do, other things are happening in your head: ‘I’m valued by the organization. They’re giving me responsibility.’ That’s better than being in the other place where you say I’m not of value in this place.”

Boredom is one of the biggest contributors to work-related stress, even in these times of economic downturn and career uncertainties. The less someone works at work, the more internal agony they feel.  Up to 70% of all illness is rooted in stress, and much of that is workplace related, resulting in $300 billion in lost revenue, and 200 million in lost workdays.  Boredom hurts not only the employee but also the employer.  It 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.

Why Do You Become Bored At Work?

I think boredom has three sources, and all of them are debilitating to your spirit.  But knowing what they are can help liberate you from the prison they create:

“I just don’t belong here” — Julia said that to me, after realizing that she never had meshed with her job.  She wasn’t critical of her company or her boss.  They just worked in a way that was too plodding and methodical for her.  For someone else, it might work fine.  This source of boredom results from major disconnect, a mismatch between you and your work.  It might be between the job and your talents, your experience, your values – whatever keeps you performing at your best.  It may include what the job offers for future opportunities, as well.  If the wrong mesh exists between you and your work role or the job environment, prepare to be bored.

What would help her is to not get hung up on feelings of frustration or resentment about the fact that it exists.  In contrast, what helps is becoming pro-active by looking for a different situation; one that provides better mesh between her and the job.  That might be within the same organization or somewhere else.  You might seek out helpful advice and direction from others – maybe within the company or from others in the same career.  And it doesn’t matter whether they’re peers, more senior people, mentors, or even people at lower levels.  Your energy has to be put in the service of creating a positive change rather than trying to rectify an obvious mismatch with a situation that’s not going to change. View your situation impersonally, and you’re more likely to spot a no-win experience pretty accurately.

“I’ve Become Invisible” Elaine was at mid-level in the marketing area of large media corporation.  She fell out of favor with a new boss because of changes in company politics above her.  Now she found herself essentially sidelined – assigned work beneath her skills and experience.  This kind of boredom results from underutilization.  You’ve been rendered invisible because your talents, skills, and capabilities are not being drawn on, being misused, perhaps even stifled.

Elaine responded to this by sizing it up as a problem to be solved, not a “poor-me” situation to be lamented.  She began calling attention to the situation, and asked for new assignments or reassignment, stressing that she wanted to contribute more to the company.  At the same time she sought out support from others in her network within the company.  She became determined to find out what prospects existed to change the situation.  “Either it changes,” she said, “or I’m out of here. I’m not about to coast along, hoping for something that’s not going to happen.”

Contrast her behavior with Bruce’s, an economist who worked for a federal government agency.  He told me he had become “shelved” and was given no substantive work, because of a political squabble higher up the ladder in his government agency.  So he decided to read books, write academic papers which wouldn’t get published…and collect his paycheck.  That’s typical of negative coping, which can fuel depression and diminished self-worth

“I need more ‘space’”Lack of opportunity for new learning and development  creates feelings of confinement, another source of boredom.  Today’s career professionals are looking for opportunities for new learning, continued growth and having impact.  When there are too few of such opportunities, you don’t have room to stretch, and you’re going to feel bored.  What helps in this situation is scouting out opportunities for expanding and enlarging your skills, whether in the same company or somewhere else.

A good illustration of that is what Roger, a 35 year-old engineer in an aerospace firm, told me:  “I’m always looking for a challenge that I think is just beyond what I’m capable of.  It’s a little scary, but fun at the same time, to stretch myself.  That’s what I need to keep growing.”

Karen’s another example. “I’d been feeling pretty stagnant and uncreative,” she told me.  As an experiment, she decided to stretch beyond her existing skills and strengths in a new direction, within her organization.  “It was a little risky,” she laughed, “because I volunteered to take on a project that I didn’t know anything about.” It was a gamble, “plunging headfirst,” as she put it.  But her boss was supportive, and she saw that it was an opportunity for new growth.  It paid off.  She did well, and senior management rewarded her for what she had achieved.  She learned that putting herself in a situation in which she had to use herself in new, creative ways produced new growth.

Steps You Can Take

The key is seeing your situation with a clear eye. Step outside of your own narrow vantage point, rather than becoming trapped within it or blocked by feelings of frustration and resentment.  Then, you’re better able to direct your energy towards finding a better situation.

  • List any situations, jobs, or creative projects from the past where you felt you were at your best, when things went really well.  Identify the resources or conditions you had going for you that supported your success.  What kinds of people were your co-workers or boss?  Did they help or hinder?  From that information, identify the specifics of the career and work environment that you need to be at your best, which to avoid, and make a list of those.
  • Identify any opportunities for greater stimulation or challenge that you can spot within your present situation or organization.  Ask around, or network to find things you may not have noticed yourself. How can you pursue them?
  • Meet with your boss and explain that you want to take on a greater challenge; or want to stretch into a new direction.  How do you read his or her response in terms of your future there?
  • Seek out an opportunity outside of work, maybe through a course, a seminar or workshop, to learn something that enhances your existing skills or builds new ones.

Putting together all of the above information and feedback, identify the kind of work environment, people, organizational culture, or type of work you need that energizes you.  List them, and compare them with your present situation.