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Job boredom – a taboo subject
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Job boredom – a taboo subject

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén

There is a lot of talk about burnout in the workplace. But there is not much serious debate about being bored at work. Yet these repetitive, grey days can dramatically influence work capacity and efficiency.

Job boredom is usually treated as a humorous subject; the inspiration behind the Dilbert cartoons or the subject of funny signs above your desk. The synonyms for boredom – disgust, lack of will, lack of interest, sadness, tiredness, apathy, world-weariness, tediousness, are plentiful and illustrate the plurality of the concept. 

Yet the academic world has been less interested. When researchers have been looking at boredom, it has been to focus on monotonous work routines which kill creativity and wellbeing. It is also quite well known that many of those who complain about a lack of motivation at work and tired routines actually are not very open to accept more challenging tasks. 

Easily dismissed

Lotta Harju is a researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki and has spent the past few years studying workplace boredom, for which little empirical research exists. The same goes for work-related feelings in general. 

Harju is focusing on high skilled jobs which from the outside at least appear to be stimulating. Dissatisfaction is also a bit of a problem in jobs which have high levels of change, creativity and challenges.

There is no clear definition of the term boredom, and the scale of the problem is easily dismissed. Harju says there is a bit of a taboo around talking about boredom and dissatisfaction, and that people who loose their spark are often seen as lazy. ‘Burnout’ is more sexy than ‘boreout’.

“It is not particularly flattering, and it is more glamorous to suffer a burnout since you have sacrificed yourself on the altar of labour and can be considered to be a real protestant.”

Reflection

Lotta Harju says there are different reasons for boredom and they can vary from person to person. Not all boredom is bad, because doing nothing in a cognitively challenging occupation can create space for moments of reflection over problems where the solution can lead to innovation. 

“Being bored at work from time to time is common and harmless, as long as it doesn’t turn into a permanent condition. Continuously feeling bored is a kind of illness which is often not noticed because you are physically present but psychologically absent.”

Harju has identified three types of workplace boredom. The first concerns work which does not live up to the expectations you had. In the absence of challenges, you get stuck in a groove. The other type is characterised by feeling that you can’t keep up. The workload is too great or work feels meaningless. The third type of workplace boredom is characterised by a working rhythm which is continuously disrupted, making it impossible to finish tasks in a meaningful way. This could be unnecessary bureaucracy and control, problems with cooperation or with management. 

The research shows that people who work with meaningful tasks can also be victims of workplace boredom if they are prevented from doing their work in a way which they themselves feel is the best way. All three types of workplace boredom were linked to the fact that the employee’s capacity was not fully explored. 

Recipe against boredom

So what is the antidote to boredom? The starting point is that everyone has a need to do things that feel meaningful and which you can be proud of. 

“Employers can grant people the freedom to carry out their jobs in the best way they can, and to allow them to plan their work like they want to.”

Lotta Harju also encourages organisations to remove all kinds of control which serve no final purpose. Individual workers can also create meaning themselves by keeping a diary of progress and of things which have been moving forwards. Harju herself makes notes every day or several days a week of what she has achieved.

“It is a way of appreciating that things are moving forward, and that not everything is left unfinished.”

Research on motivation and boredom gains importance as future workplaces get increasingly automated, leaving people to feel that machines are taking care of everything.

“They are changing the way jobs are being done and the experience of work. This can make work more diverse, when heavy and dangerous routine tasks are being taken over by machines.”

Lotta Harju’s research is based on interviews with 72 employees and leaders who worked with high-skill and support tasks in different trades. It is part of a larger research and development project run by the Institute of Occupational Health looking at motivation, engagement and boredom at work, called the Spiral of Inspiration. One academic paper based on the research has been published: Harju, Lotta, and Jari Hakanen. "An employee who was not there: a study of job boredom in white-collar work." Personnel Review (2016).

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