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We talk a lot about burnout at work, but maybe it is time to also discuss ‘boreout’.

From mental health issues for the workers to productivity losses for the organizations that employ them, boredom comes with many costs. Figuring out how to engage people would reap rewards for the individuals involved and for the economy as a whole.

A staggering 35 per cent of Canadian employees say that they are bored at work. That is according to research from LinkedIn and staffing firm Robert Half (the data was released just ahead of Ground Hog day 2023, to make the point that people felt they were doing the same things over and over). Just type in the popular hashtag #boredatwork on TikTok and you will see reams of videos made by bored workers, many presumably during work hours. From animated talking potatoes giving you hints on dealing with co-workers to shots of the new makeup looks being tried out in employee washrooms, there is no shortage of material.

Boreout’ is more than a TikTok phrase though, and at its worst it is an actual psychological disorder. ‘Boredom boreout syndrome’ happens when workers are mentally underloaded and it can cause actual physical illness. Boredom can stem from many things, including completing tasks one considers meaningless or working in a demoralizing environment or just feeling under challenged.

In one sense it is the opposite of burnout, where people have so much work they crash. Being chronically bored through the workday is apparently not much better and can also result in workers becoming stressed and anxious, with all that goes along with that.

From an organizational perspective, boreout is also a huge negative. Like burnout, boreout can result in workers quitting their jobs, with a survey of U.S. workers by consulting firm Korn Ferry finding that 33 per cent of those who want to quit their jobs cite boredom as their main reason. That is something for organizations to consider given that constantly needing to recruit and train new workers is a costly and time-consuming endeavour.

For the workers who do not quit, the costs to the organization could be even higher. As well as the costs of illness and absenteeism, there is also the issue of people who show up to work and really do not do much of it. Someone making a makeup tutorial video or playing Candy Crush or even just hanging out by the coffee machine a lot is not a super productive worker. There are even macroeconomic implications of that given Canada’s chronic productivity problems.

It would be easy to say that bored workers simply need more to do, or to suggest that work is not a party so they should not expect to be entertained during their workday. Both of those things might be true, but neither approach is likely to help worker health or productivity or to stop turnover. Helpful articles about how to deal with boredom at work give hints like structuring your day differently, taking breaks or doing disliked tasks at certain times of the day but those are also likely Band-Aid solutions to a deeper problem.

From the organization’s side of things, one helpful step would be to cut down on the things that workers find are not effective uses of anyone’s time. A study of Finnish and British workers published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior last month looked at worker boredom and found that it rose where ‘organizational red tape’ – tasks that workers find meaningless – flourished. Other studies, notably a study of Swiss workers done in 2021, found that worker boredom was worse in situations where job autonomy was lower, which suggests leaders perhaps need to step back and allow workers to handle more things independently.

Another way to conquer boredom might come from emphasizing ‘purpose’ at work. ‘Purpose’ and ‘purpose-driven organizations’ have become corporate buzzwords over the past few years, but in fact workers who can see the point of what they are doing are indeed happier and less bored at work, something that is borne out by both the Korn Ferry survey and earlier academic work. That comes down to organizations first understanding their own purpose and then communicating it well to workers to help them see the bigger picture and how their work will achieve that purpose.

Like most workplace issues, there is no quick fix or simple solution for dealing with boreout. The reality though is that for most organizations, it is not even something that is thought about as a problem that needs fixing.

Just recognizing the issue in 2024 will go a long way to helping workers and organizations.

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