Why Your Organization Should be Worried About Boredom

We’ve all experienced episodes of boredom at work. Yet, we rarely consider the potential consequences for both individuals and organizations.

In most cases, we are unaware of its presence. However, boredom certainly does occur — even in the most enduring, established organizations.

As such, I’d like to pose a question to managers and team leaders: Is boredom an operating factor among your team members? Because the rub is this — if your employees suffer from frequent boredom, they are likely underutilized. If they are underutilized they are likely disengaged. Yes — we could argue, that time for the mind to rest and wander can be positive (shown to augment creativity.) However, there are limits to this dynamic in office environments. We need to be vigilant concerning potential negative outcomes, such as decreased job satisfaction, engagement and intention to turnover.

Boredom can be hindering team effectiveness — because of our own lack of attention.

What it is
Fisher (1991) describes boredom as “a transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in the current activity”. (More background on the definition of boredom and its components here.) To be complete, we cannot singularly blame task or environment — as individual needs and motivation also play a role. This does leave us with the responsibility to employ strategies that bring boredom into focus.

What to do:

  • Open the conversation. You’ll need to open the conversation and assess its presence. How often does an employee feel bored? When does this occur? (See a newly developed measure of workplace boredom here.) It’s unlikely that your highly recruited professional will suffer through extended periods of boredom. They will likely move on to greener (and more stimulating) pastures. Some will come forward to ask for more challenging work and stay — others will take a look around to size up the possibilities or circulate their resumes.
  • Attack boredom with challenging work. Research has shown, that among college graduates, boredom is linked to a lack of challenge. No role offers the opportunity for non-stop excitement. However, we should aim for a mix of tasks that “balance the scorecard” and offer team members a chance to feel engaged. Open the conversation concerning what the individual is receiving in terms of challenge and skill development. Include tasks that might off-set boredom.
  • Manage down time. As we all know, most roles have an inherent level of work load variability — where down time is a common period to report boredom. But, this is time that could be put to good use. Discuss how slow periods could be used for challenges that might engage the individual, while providing benefit your organization. Have a list of projects handy for these periods.
  • Reinvent or replace. I’ve seen many a report, task or process which breeds boredom, and ultimately has limited value for the customer or client in its present form. This translates into rote tasks that serve no one. Discuss with your team members how outcome deliverables could be enhanced. Extend the challenge for your team to do so.

How have you addressed boredom at work? What did you do? Share your strategies.

A version of this post was first published on LinkedIn Pulse on Jan 13, 2016

Why A Bit Of Boredom Might Help Your Career

“When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.”John Kabat-Zinn

Boredom is something most of us try to avoid at all costs, and thanks to today’s vibrant entertainment industry there is usually no shortage of activities to keep us occupied from the time we wake until the moment our head hits the pillow at night.

Work, however, is one place where tedium is often difficult to avoid, but new research shows that this may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Boredom allows creativity to flourish

Recently, psychologists Dr. Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman from the University of Central Lancashire (United Kingdom) discovered that activities that are typically seen as boring, such as data entry or attending staff meetings, may help us to become more creative.

In one experiment, people were asked to come up with different uses for two polystyrene cups. But first, half of them were given the rather dull task of copying numbers from a telephone directory.

As you might expect, those who had initially busied themselves copying telephone numbers developed more creative ideas for using the cups than those who hadn’t.

In another similar experiment, people were again asked to complete a creative task, but this time, some of them were told to read out numbers from the telephone directory rather than writing them down.

As in the first experiment, those who hadn’t completed any task at all were less creative, but those who had read out the numbers were even more creative than those who had written them out.

This suggests that the more passive a boring activity is, the more room there is for creativity to flourish. For example, reading allows the brain to wander, which enhances creativity, but a more engaging activity like writing reduces the scope for daydreaming.

Other studies have shown that students with a tendency to daydream are often better learners, and although it is often seen as the result of a lack of discipline, daydreaming is actually a sign of a healthy and active mind.

What these findings mean for you

These findings are particularly valuable to those who work in creative industries like writing, film or music, but anyone can benefit from letting their mind wander once in a while.

By allowing yourself to be bored instead of trying to find some activity to fill the void, you’re actually giving your brain a chance to explore new possibilities and come up with ideas.

Some of the world’s most famous writers worked at tedious jobs all day, and then went home in the evening to create their masterpieces.

Stephen King worked as a high school janitor before he was published, and he actually thought of the concept for his first novel “Carrie” while cleaning the girls’ locker rooms.

Anne Rice was an insurance claims examiner before her now classic novel “Interview with the Vampire” was published, and Douglas Adams, author of “A Hitchhiker’s Gide to the Galaxy,” said the idea for his book came to him while he was moonlighting as a hotel security guard.

So if you’re in the habit of checking your Twitter feed or heading to the nearest coffee shop the minute boredom hits, you may want to hold off and endure it for while – that is, if you don’t want to miss out on your best idea yet.

photo credit: Rachel Elaine. via photopin cc