Boredom and loss of meaning at work: it’s serious business!

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You all know about burnout, a disorder usually caused by chronic work overload. But are you aware that boredom at work (boreout) and loss of meaning (brownout) can also be harmful to your mental health?

Maude Villeneuve Ph.D., Scientific Coordinator of the Relief Research Chair in Mental Health, Self-Management and Work (RRCMHSMW)
Simon Coulombe Ph.D., Chairholder of the RRCMHSM

Did you know?
  • According to a survey of nearly 5,000 professionals, boredom at work is the main reason people look for a new job.
  • One study found that nine out of 10 people would be willing to earn less money to have a more meaningful or rewarding job.
  • No matter the age group or salary, the same study noted workers want to do more meaningful work so much that they’re willing to pay for it, trade a percentage of their salary or savings to land it.

When boredom and disengagement hurt

The working world is evolving and employee expectations are shifting along with it in terms of their working conditions and the value their work contributes to society.

These expectations are new but really the impact of understimulating or useless tasks is nothing new at all. Decades of research have revealed just how badly such working conditions harm employee well-being.

It’s time to expand your vocabulary to better protect your mental health. Add boreout and brownout to the mix to join burnout… which needs no introduction!

Boreout: when boredom leads to exhaustion

What does boredom at work mean? Is it just twiddling your thumbs waiting to be told what to do? It runs deeper than that.

Boredom at work is an emotional state characterized by a lack of stimulation, concentration problems, extreme restlessness and difficulty engaging in your work. It can be caused by a quantitative (not enough to do) or qualitative (understimulating duties, regardless of their quantity) underload.

Chronic boredom at work leads to boreout, a state of sustained understimlulation that’s linked to depression, anxiety, stress, absenteeism, presenteeism (a loss of productivity due to going to work when sick) and increased turnover.

Brownout: when a loss of meaning becomes too heavy to bear

Brownout is a controversial concept. It has not received the same level of scientific validation as burnout and boreout. The term is also used to refer to an electrical concept, namely a drop in the amount of electricity available in a particular area.

In an organizational context, brownout refers to the loss of meaning in your work, a facet of disengagement, which has been identified as a precursor to burnout. This applies to employees working long hours with no real interest in their work, resulting in disengagement, dissatisfaction and lethargy.

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How to recognize it in yourself and others?

These two syndromes have similar warning signs, although one is more a result of boredom and the other a loss of meaning. By keeping these symptoms on the radar, you can act before their impacts on health become too severe:

  • Recurring feeling of understimulation;
  • Constant uncertainty about how useful your work is to your organization or society in general;
  • Difficulty taking action, regardless of the quantity of duties to be performed (procrastination);
  • Increasing state of fatigue, irritability, restlessness and somatic factors (headache, stomachache, insomnia, musculoskeletal pain).

The solution: enrich your work!

The quantity of tasks doesn’t matter as much as their nature when fighting back against these work syndromes. To regain meaning or combat boredom, a worker can take action to improve the stimulating or meaningful nature of his or her duties, at least in part. The literature on job redesign is overflowing with potential courses of action. Here’s a few of them:

  • Challenges: Carefully examine your work and determine areas where you could use your creativity to improve certain processes or outcomes. Actively seek out training and professional development opportunities.
  • Support: Expand your support network at work by multiplying opportunities to exchange and collaborate. Working together makes the most monotonous tasks more bearable and even enjoyable
  • Flexibility: Distribute those understimulating tasks throughout your week to get them done at times when you have low mental energy. Break up those understimulating times with periods of creativity, learning and mutual support.

Are you a manager?

Improving the meaning and stimulation of work is not just the responsibility of employees.

Here’s how you can take action as a manager to boost the mental health of your employees:

  • Build psychological safety. Openly discuss mental health in the workplace and establish regular communication mechanisms so your employees can voice their boredom or lack of meaning. You can work together to identify people in the company who would benefit from new experiences or encourage your employees to develop projects based on their interests and those of the organization.
  • Focus on motivating and stimulating work. Clearly and regularly communicate how even the most mundane tasks of an employee contribute to the success of the organization’s mission. Encourage employee participation on the organization’s strategic committees where their expertise will be valued and used.
  • Express genuine appreciation for their commitment. Find regular opportunities to show your employees how much you appreciate the time and energy they devote to their work. Feeling seen and valued can alleviate the negative impact of understimulating tasks.

In conclusion

Boredom and loss of a sense of meaning at work have serious repercussions on health and job performance. Unfortunately, there are stigma and taboos associated with any mental health issue in the workplace and this can limit the extent to which they’re discussed. It’s always recommended to take action as soon as you notice any initial signs of stress, boredom or loss of a sense of meaning. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional if the situation is affecting your physical or mental health.