Workplace boredom? There’s a solution if you can be bothered

Are you bored senseless at work? I don’t mean occasional bouts of boredom when work is quiet or a task is dull. Instead, you have entrenched boredom that is impossible to shake.

The kind where work is boring even when you are busy. You find ways to stretch tasks and fill the day, checking social media, attending unnecessary meeting and doing personal tasks.

As people take fewer career risks, there’s the chance they’ll stay bored at work for longer. Credit:Blend Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Secretly you can do your job in two or three hours a day. The rest is padding. You pretend to work and your employer pretends you are busy. The boredom is soul-destroying.

Sound familiar? Work boredom does not get as much attention at it deserves. Local and overseas studies show surprisingly high levels of workplace boredom and not much progress to fix it.

Australian managers believe their staff are bored for 16 per cent of each week on average, according to a 2018 survey by recruiter Robert Half. And 87 per cent of managers said their staff experience some boredom, usually from dull tasks or roles, or too many meetings.

About 43 per cent of United States office workers are bored, international research shows. Bored workers are twice as likely to quit.

I am always wary of surveys by recruiters and consultants that have alarming headline findings based on small samples. Many workers when completing anonymous surveys would say they are occasionally bored. Some boredom is inevitable and can be healthy.

In the general US population, 63 per cent of respondents to a US academic study reported experiencing boredom in their personal life at least once across a 10-day sampling period. Boredom was more prevalent among men, youths, the unmarried and those with lower income.

Let’s face it, some organisations, roles and tasks are boring by nature. My first part-time job, for example, was manning a supermarket register, long before the days of self-service. If any task is duller than entering grocery prices, hour after hour, I’m yet to find it.

I recall working part-time for a state government superannuation department in between university semesters, processing leave forms for the human resources team. Nothing could have made that role or organisation interesting; its bored workers regularly took sick leave.

Even exciting roles can become boring over time. Some professional sports people retire because they need a new challenge. Others with dynamic, fast-moving roles eventually lose interest because they have done the work for so long that it feels monotonous.

None of this, of course, is new. What has changed is a number of trends that are making more people – and organisations – prone to risks of workplace boredom.

Moreover, telling a manager you are bored can be career-limiting. The risk is your boss privately questions your commitment or talent.

The first is declining job mobility. Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe in June noted that the average time workers are staying with their employer is increasing; the share of employed people who switch employers in a given year is the lowest in a long time.

Talk of millennials regularly switching jobs is not reflected in data or across industry. In an uncertain economy, people are staying in their job longer (if they can) and taking fewer career risks. I suspect high household debt is encouraging people to stay put.

The upshot is bored employees who might have changed jobs in a buoyant economy to re-energise their career, putting up with monotonous work for longer. When you are worried about servicing a big home loan and keeping your job, why take career risks.



Moreover, telling a manager you are bored can be career-limiting. The risk is your boss privately questions your commitment or talent, loads you up with too much extra work, or puts a target on your back for the next redundancy round.

Younger employees, in particular, might struggle with workplace boredom in ways older generations never experienced. Youth who have grown up with a device nearby, had parents who organised their activities, and were rarely bored, are not used to downtime.

Older workers who have been asked to take on more work and responsibility, and had years of stagnant wages growth, could confuse burnout with boredom. The two can be related, but burnout is about exhaustion from doing too much; boredom of usually about doing too little.

Yes, I’m generalising with the above examples. Many I know love their work and rarely find it boring. At the first sign of monotony they look for a new task, role or employer – or have the professional courage to talk to their boss about ways to liven up their role.

Smart companies design an "employee experience" through initiatives on workplace culture, learning and development, access to information, communication and regular feedback. Their managers help staff design and maintain interesting roles and their leadership makes work interesting.

Employees also have to take responsibility for being board – and do something about it. They can’t whinge about workplace boredom if they are lazy, unwilling to help colleagues or take on new challenges or risks.

There’s no easy answer to this issue. The starting point is understanding staff engagement through surveys and other techniques, to know if staff are bored and why. Then working with staff to discover ways to make their role more interesting and productive.

And most of all, creating a "safe space" where employees can tell their boss they are bored, without fear of retribution, and want to work collaboratively to find solutions.

In my experience, work becomes boring when bad managers pigeon-hole an employee in the same role for years and forget about their personal development; and when bad employees do nothing about it, believing it’s their employer’s job to make their task interesting.

The loser is workplace productivity. And, ultimately, employee sanity and enjoyment as they struggle through hours of workplace boredom and clockwatching each day.

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