The Impact of Boredom at Work

Before the pandemic, when the workplace was “normal”, something like 70-80% of employees were bored with their work. That should come as no surprise given the fact that historically the qualifications just to get an interview have often exceeded the intellectual demands of the job itself.

The problem, however, gets worse as people are promoted, particularly at mid-career when the skills required to do the job are less than the combined knowledge and expertise of those who hold those positions, especially if they’ve been with the company for a while.

Boredom, however, isn’t limited to the lack of intellectual challenges. The time of year can make a big difference. The darkness of winter, for instance, can create a general malaise. Time seems to slow down and can leave you wondering if it will ever get light outside.

Monotony is another cause of boredom - doing the same thing day after day after day, often in exactly the same order and to the same extent. Imagine how hamsters must feel.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that you can’t engage in stimulating work all the time. Even those in the most intellectually challenging positions need a break once in a while.

But employees today are bored more than 25% of the time and, for you as a manager, that’s a problem.

You see, it’s not just that things take longer when you’re bored, or that people become clock watchers. It’s not even that they’ll look for something - anything - that they can do until they can leave for the day.

It’s something else that’s far more serious.

 

Meaninglessness

In pre-pandemic Britain, the idea of working from home seemed like bliss, and for many it turned out to be pretty close to it - at first. Some of that came from the novelty of doing so. It was a different place from which to work. There was no commute, and no phones; and they even got to spend time with the children.

It almost felt like being on holiday.

Many thought that by removing all the hassle of getting to work, filling the day with busy work, and then enduring the long ride home, they would have more free time and feel less stressed. This, too, seemed to be the case, at least at the beginning.

But what’s that saying? Be careful what you wish for.

Having wished for the chance to work from home, those who were bored at work also found that it was possible to be bored at home.

Who’d’ve thunk it?

That it’s possible to be bored working from home as well as in the office points to the fact that while the environment is a factor, it’s probably not the most important one.

What is the most important one?

It’s sameness; a lack of variety.

Some boredom is okay. It gives your mind and your emotions a rest. But boredom that goes on and on, ad infinitum is unhealthy. You see, people need to feel that they’re growing; that they’re progressing. They need to see that they’ve gone from A to B, and B has to be significant. It has to mean something. Otherwise it just feels like all your doing is breaking big rocks into smaller ones.

Why does this matter?

It’s because boredom is the precursor of meaninglessness which left unchecked can lead to a loss of identity.

 

Identity

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?” “Who am I” in the context of . . . [fill in the blank.] The answer will depend on the reference point, whether it’s family, work, or something else.

When you meet someone for the first time, a common question is, “What do you do?” To which you answer, I’m an X, or I’m a Y. Those who do “important” work feel proud that they do it. Those with more basic responsibilities, less so.

When someone says something like, “I’m married with four kids, two boys and two girls, and eight grandchildren,” they’re telling who you are in terms of their family.

When they say, “I’m a welder,” or “I’m an office manager,” then they’re telling you who they are in terms of their work.

An identity crisis comes from losing that sense of who you are in a particular context. It’s why being made redundant can be so traumatic. When it happens, you lose the sense of who you are at work.

Part of your identity at work comes from the feedback you get from others, whether it’s in the form of agreement, criticism, or even banter. You derive it from the work that you do, and to a certain extent, that comes from the position that you hold.

If you’re the head of your department, then you draw some satisfaction from doing that job by the influence that you have on those around you. When you work from home, however, you’re isolated from many of the emotional cues that you’d normally get. And because there’s no one there to give you those affirmations, albeit subtle ones, you may experience periods when your identity feels threatened.

 

One of the reasons that a loss of meaning, especially at work, is so important is because if you think that what you do doesn’t matter that much, then the next logical step is to believe that you don’t matter much either.

Another way to look at this is to think about the value that you or your employees give to the organization. If what you do isn’t important, then that means that it has no value, and if there’s no value in the work, then you would logically feel that there’s no value in the person who does it.

 

Relationships with others

Identity comes in part from our relationship with others, whether at work or in some other setting. When you work by yourself, you’re cut off from those things that remind you of who you are, and when that happens, it’s easy to feel lost. That’s because identity also comes from a feeling of belonging. When you work in isolation from others, it’s easy to feel that you don’t belong anywhere.

Human beings are social creatures and, as such, they need to spend time together. In pre-pandemic times, that togetherness occurred in the office or on the factory floor. Although many have since experienced greater togetherness with their families, others have lost much of the feeling of belonging to anything. This is especially true for those who don’t have families. For them, their co-workers were both family and friends.

 

Meaningless work and identity

When your work becomes meaningless, then that can jeopardize your identity. That’s not to say that you should necessarily find your identity in your work; only that many people do, at least to some extent. And so when you ignore the problem of boredom, you also fuel the likelihood of meaninglessness, and threaten the identity of the people who work for you.

This is a serious issue.

You’ve seen already that both you and your employees define yourselves in some way on the basis of the work that you do. If what you do matters, then you matter. If, however, your work is meaningless, then you’re wasting your time to do it and wasting your life by staying with your organization.

This is how employees feel when they’re bored.

The flip side is that when you feel that what you’re doing matters, then you make the effort to do it better, and in so doing, you also feel better about yourself. You begin to feel again that you matter; that you’re making a valuable contribution to the place where you work.

Scholars believe that people need to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves. An organization does that; but when you work by yourself, then you can lose that feeling, and if you’re forced to work from home when you don’t want to, then that feeling is much more acute.

In order to preserve identity, work has to be meaningful, and the crux of meaningful work is interest.

 

How to combat boredom

Boredom can be defeated with meaningful variety.

 

Job enlargement

One way to do that is to afford your employees the opportunity to become multi-skilled. In the 1960s, they called this job enlargement. Job enlargement expanded employee capabilities as well as responsibilities. Perhaps the thing that was overlooked, however, was the some people didn’t want their jobs enlarged, at least not in the way that they were.

You can’t simply increase the scope of people’s jobs willy-nilly. There has to be continuity and interest. People have to want to take on the additional responsibilities that you have in mind, and while they may look related to you on paper, they may violate the working style of the person involved.

For instance, people who prefer to work alone will not thrive if they’re job is enlarged to include a lot of group activity. The opposite is also true. Those who prefer to work with others wilt if they suddenly find themselves working alone. For the gregarious, working alone in the office is just as bad as working from home.

 

Flexible working locations

The pandemic sent millions of workers home and for much of the year, but for reasons already discussed, many of them don’t want to be home every day. They’d like to come into the office periodically. And so instituting some way for them to alternate between the two would be preferable to being stuck in one location or another.

The easiest way to solve this is to ask each one what they’d like to do.

 

Flexible working environment

Whatever the so-called guidance, people need to be able to personalize their workspace. This is not only part of their identity, it’s a major part of why they work for you at all. If you take that away from them, then you’re telling them that they’re just like everyone else.

Identity is rooted in expressions of individuality.

The connections between boredom and identity must not be overlooked.

In the pre-pandemic workplace, it was assumed that work was boring because you had to endure a long commute, work long hours without taking breaks, and put up with countless interruptions. When the workplace moved home, employees discovered that their boredom wasn’t so much about their place of work, as it was the work itself. If anything, the change of location reminded them that what they did was boring, and what went on at home was much more interesting.

On top of that, they recognized that they felt more meaning in what they did at home. To a certain extent, they felt validated. In other words, being at home reminded them why they worked for you at all. This strengthened their identity.

Although there may seem to be an abundance of available applicants at the moment, it’s worth remembering that before the pandemic, there was an acute shortage of skilled people. That dearth will return. You can depend on it. And that means that you will have to ensure that the work you ask people to do is meaningful to them. Otherwise, they’ll get bored with it. History will repeat itself, and they’ll begin to wonder why they should work for you at all.

 

If you would like to know more about the imppact of boredom at work, contact me here!

 

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