Bored, Stuck And Unfulfilled Might Be As Bad As Burnout?

Are you watching the clock, wishing 5 pm would hurry up and come around or are spending your days dreaming of winning the lotto? Does work feel like an endless round of tedious tasks and meetings that you would like to escape?

We’re quite rightly having the dialogue about stress and burnout given their impact on individuals and society at large. However, what about the implications of being bored for the person and its effect on the organization? Given a choice, quite a few of us would rather be busy doing fulfilling, rewarding work than spend our days mind-numbingly bored, physically but not mentally or emotionally engaged, long for home time.

Boredom at work isn’t just bad for the sufferers. It can lead to significant issues that affect entire teams and even the whole company. Studies have shown that feeling bored can lead to disengagement, withdrawal, negativity that can spread to other team members and even intentional failure of projects. All of which can contribute to lower productivity.

Moreover, boredom affects substantial numbers of employees. In a 2015 study, up to 70% of US employees claimed to be bored and disengaged at work. Another study global study recently suggested that only 15% of employees were truly engaged in their jobs, that a considerable number actively disliked their role and the rest just turned up, did their work in return for the monthly paycheck. This is especially true for office-based roles.

Research on stress shows that there is for each of us an optimal stress level, so-called ‘eustress,’ where we can perform at our peak. It’s when our goals stretch our capabilities slightly. However, if the goals are set too high, we can feel stressed and overwhelmed. If set too low and we have not been challenged enough boredom can set in, and we lose motivation, in fact too little stress and a lack of meaningful work can lead to apathy, lack of sleep because we’re not feeling tired out the end of the day and even depression can set in.

The happiest and most productive employees feel they have the choice over their work and feel valued. Where we may feel we have less control to address the boredom, it can lead us to feel powerless or helpless.

Much of our self-worth today is tied up with our jobs and even though the tide is turning, being busy still is a badge of honor for many people. So, having too little to do can harm our self-perception and our sense of self-worth. It can leave us questioning our value to the company and even set in motion of patterns of negative thoughts, e.g., Are they trying to ease me out? Does my boss think I’m useless? “I’m not good at anything”. These types of negative thinking patterns can be lead to feelings of stress, anxiety or even depression.

The happiest and most productive employees feel they have the choice over their work and feel valued. Where we may feel we have less control to address the boredom, it can lead us to feel powerless or helpless.

Being underemployed can lead to feelings of guilt that others are overloaded while you’re twiddling your thumbs. Moreover, there may even be fear of speaking up as that could lead to being made redundant or becoming overloaded and unable to cope. So many people just put up with boredom rather than risk losing their jobs or having their workload bumped up leading to added stress. Employees can even become quite adept at hiding their boredom, sitting behind their computers with same file open for hours, spreading papers all over their desks or accepting a myriad of meeting requests. There have been anecdotal reports of employees taking home paperwork to give the impression that they are busy. So many tactics just to appear productive and useful.

Responsibility for changing this situation lies both with the individual and the organization. For the individual, the critical factor is to regain a measure control over their work. It’s often the feeling of helplessness that leads to the negative attitudes and behaviors. Leaders have the responsibility to ensure that individuals are motivated at work and that the workload is evenly distributed across team members.

For the individual, some steps that could be explored include:

  1. Are you working to full capacity in your current role? Are you update to date with everything? If you’ve been in your current position for a while it’s easy to be complacent and do the same thing over and over. Do a thorough review of your current role, your KPI’s for the year and how well you’re meeting your targets (weekly, monthly, quarterly) before considering doing anything else.
  2. If you work in an organization where there are training opportunities. Learning new work-related skills should motivate you out of your lethargy and boredom. It is also worth examining these as they could be a path to being able to take more responsibility or gaining a new role within the organization. If you work in a smaller company with less internal training opportunities, then looking for external courses is a route forward. You may be able to get financial support from your company or another training body.
  3. You could approach your manager and ask whether you could contribute to another project, shadow a colleague or gain experience in another department. Always present these as you wishing to develop your skills and competencies, so you can contribute more fully to the organization.

Taking proactive steps to reducing boredom will lead to you feeling more in control of your career. However, if you are always bored at work and there is nothing to occupy your hours, it may be time to start looking for a job that better uses your skills. However, if it is difficult to find a new role currently then consider life or career coaching to help you develop a clear vision for your future and scope out concrete steps to take you there. And even taking up new interests that help you develop a more positive mindset. And if you choose to make not to make any changes to your current situation, then do it mindfully.

Although I hate the over-busy always-on culture, I firmly believe that boredom is just as detrimental to our mental wellbeing. If you are overwhelmed you might get more empathy from leaders, you can learn to manage your workload, but when you’re bored, it’s harder to voice your concerns without making your role look redundant. However, it is time to address this issue of boredom and disengagement within organisations to ensure employees are not only productive but also creative and genuinely happier.


Dr. Clarissa Hughes
Dr. Clarissa Hughes
Dr. Clarissa Hughes is the CEO and founder of The Little Breathing Space based in Göteborg, Sweden. She has a passion for working with busy business people through tailored mindfulness coaching to find their optimal stress levels and to be able to better navigate the demands of modern life skillfully. Her coaching empowers them to develop a higher capacity to feel clear-headed, confident and thriving in a life that reflects their purpose. Clarissa has been a senior manager in some of the world’s largest multinationals in the UK and Asia-Pacific for over 28 years. She suffered a burnout due to stress and found her way back to a calmer, more connected life through mindfulness. Clarissa is an accredited Breathworks Mindfulness practitioner, iRest Yoga Nidra teacher has experience and an academic background in human behaviour. She is a keynote speaker at leadership conferences, hosts the podcast ‘A Little Breathing Space’ and regularly appears in articles, podcasts, and radio interviews internationally talking all things mindfulness. Clarissa believes that mindfulness is more than daily meditation - it is a way of living with compassionate self-awareness so that we can truly thrive.

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