Is workplace boredom ‘the new stress?’

Story highlights

Modern workplaces becoming more boring, says psychology lecturer

Researcher found that military surgeons are disruptive when they are bored

Some people are more boredom-prone than others and tend to get angry more readily

Organizations can tackle boredom by giving employees something to care about beyond themselves

CNN  — 

Boredom is an unlikely new frontier in workplace research. Commonly associated with goofing off, taking absurdly long lunch-breaks, and playing internet games on the sly, new studies suggest it’s something that affects high-performing employees as well as those in menial jobs.

Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, in England, says boredom is the second most commonly hidden workplace emotion, after anger, and believes modern workplaces are becoming more boring.

“Changes in legislation all the time leads to bureaucratic procedures that people find boring,” she says. “We seem to be in a culture of having meetings, which a lot of people find boring. There are a lot of automated systems now, so a lot of the things we do are quite remote. We have more people working night shifts, which are more boring because you’ve got fewer people to talk to.”

In addition, Mann feels that, as a society, we’re becoming less inclined to tolerate boredom. She says: “People have more of an expectation to be fulfilled by everything they do. Compare our grandparents’ generation: there wasn’t any desire to have self-actualization and to reach their potential. They didn’t go down the coal mines in order to be fulfilled.

“That attitude has changed. Now, we get people quite commonly quitting higher paid jobs for jobs that are lower paid but more satisfying.”

Despite its proliferation, Mann thinks there’s little awareness about boredom, which she deems “the new stress.”

“It’s as stressful as stress but, whereas stress management courses are 10 a penny, organizations are terrified to admit their workers might be bored,” she adds.

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Last year, Mark de Rond, from the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, spent six weeks studying military surgeons at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. He found that boredom had a destabilizing effect, even on otherwise high-performing individuals.

In his first week, de Rond saw 174 casualties arrive, observed 23 amputations and 134 hours of operating. A good proportion were local children. Although the work is mentally and emotionally demanding, the surgeons are “brutally effective,” he says.

“I don’t think I’ve seen teams more effective than when someone’s bleeding out in Bastion. It’s almost beautiful to watch. They’re so very composed; it’s so noise-free. The problem is when people don’t have anything to do,” says de Rond.

According to de Rond, although there are days when no casualties come in, because the surgeons are on call around the clock, they can never really relax. As they wait for helicopters to bring in casualties, they feel guilty for wishing for more work. They start to compete with each other, become critical of each other’s efforts, and become reflective about the futility of it all. “As they become unhappy, they become like big bears – you just don’t want to be around them,” de Rond says.

A study on the link between counterproductive work behavior and boredom by researchers at Montclair State University and University of South Florida identifies six ways bored employees might harm their organizations: by abusing others, by “production deviance” (purposely failing at tasks), sabotage, withdrawal, theft and horseplay. Of these, the most common is withdrawal (absence, lateness, taking long breaks) says the University of South Florida’s Paul Spector.

He and his co-researchers drew on studies that show that some people are more boredom-prone than others. These people are more likely to get angry, engage in risky driving, display aggression and hostility, and lack honesty and humility.

At the bottom of it all is resentment: “To some extent these behaviors can be the product of someone just getting back at the employer, blaming the employer for creating boring conditions, and trying to strike back,” Spector says.

He adds that there’s little correlation between workload and boredom. “You can be very busy and still be bored. And you could be distressed even though you’re not all that busy – if you just hate what you’re doing.”

De Rond has also seen a kind of “existential” boredom manifest in professional services firms. “That’s not a result of having nothing to do – they have nothing worthwhile to do.”

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The solution, according to de Rond, is “disarmingly straightforward.” “Provided everyone is capable, all you have to do is to give people something to care about more than themselves,” he says.

Bastion provides an example. “You’ve got casualties coming in who will die if you don’t do something quickly – that is more important than yourself, at that point. Teams work incredibly effectively when that happens,” he says.

To replicate this effect, leaders need to explain to teams “why what they do is important, who it matters to and why.” “It’s that that keeps a team focused,” de Rond says. “Otherwise it’s just work.”

De Rond also believes it’s necessary for workplaces to engineer a culture of “psychological safety” in which “it’s okay to ask questions.”

Allowing employees to air the doubts and anxieties that arise when they are bored is, he notes, “a very frightening thing” for organizations to do. “Most people would suspect that if you start questioning protocol, you then eat into morale.”

But in an environment of psychological safety, he theorizes, “what you should see is some of the vulnerability of the people involved. It’s where people can be okay with that, instead of being defensive about it. If anything, it should really boost morale.”