Bored at Work? The Science Behind It … and How to Break Free

 

boredom at workA summer internship left my 20-year-old nephew disillusioned. He’d spent previous summers at a construction job, his days filled with hard physical labor from sun up to sun down. With two years of college under his belt heading toward a finance degree, he was ready for a challenge in his chosen field. Instead, as his summer progressed, he described his new boss counselling him on how to stretch a tiny amount of work to fill an entire day. He was disappointed and bored.

Boredom in the workplace isn’t new. Psychologists have been studying it for over 100 years. A factory worker with a highly repetitive job, a summer intern with little to do—it’s easy to see the cause. But as much of today’s workforce struggles under the pressure of mounting workloads—what gives? Experts suggest information overload and the bureaucracy of many white collar-jobs brings its own version of routineness and boredom—and may well account for a portion of the huge number of disengaged workers in today’s workforce.

bored at work“Too little work” does win out, however, in the boredom ratings, with recent job satisfaction survey findings showing only 49 percent of workers with not enough to do were happy with their jobs. The “too much work” camp had a higher satisfaction rating of 57 percent.

What causes boredom?

There’s an optimal balance between stimulation and calm that is unique to every person. So, perhaps surprisingly, one of the key components of boredom is attention, according to psychologytoday.com. A person first needs a reasonable level of psychological energy or arousal to be bored. It’s the need to do something with this energy, and not finding anything, that causes boredom. (Low arousal and not much happening leads to your feeling relaxed rather than bored.)

“Our brains need stimulation and they especially need novelty. This allows our brains to maintain their plasticity and flexibility,” writes Adam Sinicki for healthguidance.org.

boring workpsychologytoday.com offers this insight as well: “Employees who are better utilized feel more fulfilled, more engaged.” When an employee’s skills or talents are not used, he or she can feel stifled or bored.

Another element of boredom is having little control over your situation. You’re stuck in a meeting with a speaker droning on about a topic that isn’t relevant to anything you do.

How can you combat boredom?

  1. First, take responsibility, suggests a forbes.com article. Look for opportunities and things you can do to stay motivated. Is it possible to mix the activities of your job to give yourself more variety?
  2. Stay curious. Look for opportunities to expand your skills. Learn more about the work you’re doing so you can try new approaches or techniques. Get additional training. Read. Take a scientific approach to your job—stay curious about the effects of slight changes to your methods.
  3. Look for new challenges. Can you take on additional responsibilities or projects?
  4. Exercise or meditate. Physical exercise and mindfulness have been shown to reduce boredom, according to howstuffworks.com. You’re looking for the right amount of ease and challenge to put you into a groove where you feel a sense of accomplishment, rather than pushing through a tedious physical task.
  5. Accept it. Recognize that all jobs have a certain amount of boredom. While this may sound like advice from the HR department, acceptance is indeed a key to successfully moving beyond boredom. One study indicated that people who tried to alleviate their boredom with work breaks and other distractions were less successful than those who meditated, engaged with other people and simply accepted the boredom. Sometimes you’ve just got to push forward and get it done. Set small goals (and rewards) for yourself throughout the day, e.g., after you make these next five phone calls, treat yourself to a refill on your coffee.

combat work boredom cropEvery job has boring aspects. Sometimes pushing through is all you can do. Or get a change of perspective by stepping outside your normal routine—whether it’s finding new information through training or reading, taking on new challenges or finding a physical outlet through exercise or meditation.

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