The unacknowledged element of stress at work
It is ironic that while millions of unemployed workers in Europe dream about having a job to restore normality in their lives, the employed often face an unacknowledged element of stress: boredom. Boredom saps our motivation, and stops us from performing at our best whether it is brought about because we are performing duties that no longer stimulate us or because we are under-employed.
Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, recently conducted research that produced some startling conclusions. Boredom – after anger – is the second-most commonly suppressed emotion in the workplace. It appears that everyone from high-fliers to drones can be affected. Even more interesting, Mann’s research concluded that the 10 most boring jobs in the world are likely to be found in sectors like administration and secretarial, manufacturing, sales, marketing, IT, research, media, law, engineering and banking.
In 2011 another researcher, Mark de Rond from the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, spent several weeks at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan where he studied the work of military surgeons.
In just one week he saw 174 casualties, 23 amputations and 134 hours of surgery. When the surgeons were getting on with their work dealing with medical crises they seemed to be highly motivated but when there was a lull in their work medics found it difficult to relax.
Other research conducted by Montclair State University of South Florida identified six ways bored employees might harm their organisations: by abusing others, by purposely failing at tasks, sabotage, withdrawal, theft and horseplay. The most common is withdrawal. The out-of-work effects of workplace boredom seem to be continuous anger, risky driving, aggression and hostility, and lack of honesty and humility.
What I found interesting is that this research has concluded that there is little correlation between workload and boredom. It seems that most professional workers get bored not so much because they do not have enough work, but because they feel that they have nothing worthwhile to do.
Some people are better than others in the way they seek to control this negative emotion. The Irish Independent recently carried a feature on Barry Pilcher, a London based artist who 20 years ago found life in the metropolis too boring and decided to go with his wife and daughter to live in Inishfree – an idyllic remote island off the coast of Donegal. He is now the sole resident on this island but says he feels “isolated and trapped”.
Pilcher’s wife left the island after a few years and returned to London to ensure that their daughter received a proper education. They still visit the island occasionally but Pilcher says he is unable to leave. “Things have become a lot more difficult and I do feel isolated, even trapped,” he said. “But money is an issue and I would have to sell my house. Obviously, nobody is buying up property.”
I know of many business people who are frustrated with the “culture of having meetings” that are often boring and do little to keep morale high. Others find the amount of paperwork involved in most jobs simply unmanageable. At the other extreme, some workers find that the automation of certain tasks has made their jobs meaningless. People working nightshifts often get bored because they get few people to talk to.
Older workers seem to cope better with workplace boredom as many younger workers are not prepared to put up with this happiness dampener. Some people are quitting higher paid jobs for jobs that pay less but are more satisfying.
While many employers acknowledge that workplace stress is a problem they need to address through stress management courses for their employees, “they seem to be in denial over the possibility that their workers might be yawning their way through the working day”.
Low productivity resulting from workplace boredom can be addressed effectively. Some industrial psychologists advocate the need for employers to redesign the workflow in their businesses with the aim of giving people something to do that they care more about. Bosses should constantly remind workers why their role is important.
Another important step to address workplace boredom is “to create a culture where it is acceptable for workers to ask questions and where employees feel comfortable to air their concerns about the boredom they experience in their jobs”.
Boredom is a reversible stress factor, if only it is tackled effectively.