Employees may complain they’re burned out. But they might actually suffer from “boreout.”
They’re equally damaging — and something HR and front-line leaders will want to address and manage.
Boreout isn’t exactly the opposite of burnout, but they have similar effects on employees. Boreout is chronic boredom at work — people feel underworked, unchallenged, unmotivated and frustrated.
Like burnout, it will likely increase stress, tension, turnover and poor health, according to a study published in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Beyond that, people who are bored aren’t exactly productive. They often show up at work and spend time online browsing and shopping, scrolling social media, chatting with co-workers and planning life outside work. Those are their coping mechanisms — and they likely distract other employees from their work.
“Boreout is an overarching sense of lack of importance and value,” says Lupita McLane, Chief People Officer at Seiler. “It’s more than just having a bad week or feeling impatient to take on new responsibilities. Boreout is also distinct from simply being bored for a short period of time. It’s a longer-term, chronic problem.”
So too little on the job is just about as bad as too much on the job.
Causes of boreout
Some people end up bored at work because they truly don’t have enough to do — and likely desire more. But these are the most common causes of boreout:
- Monotony. We aren’t talking about the days of monotonous tasks on the first assembly lines. Today, boreout comes from the lack of new tasks, learning and changes at work.
- Lack of purpose. Employees feel disconnected from their job, the company and what should be accomplished at work. They aren’t engaged.
- Lack of challenge. Employees aren’t mentally challenged or they don’t have the chance to use their full range of knowledge and skills.
- Stagnation. They feel like they don’t have opportunities to progress professionally. They may have come in over qualified for the job.
- Limited power. Employees feel they don’t have control over how or when their work gets done and they can’t take responsibility for the success of anything.
Most employees aren’t going to wave their hands in the air and scream, “I’m bored. Make this interesting.” More likely, they’ll withdraw and possibly quiet quit or loudly cause disruptions — neither of which you want.
“Thinking that your work is unimportant can foster a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness in a person’s broader life context, preventing them from finding the motivation to change or grow,” says McLane. “They might find themselves stuck, which can lead to other problems.”
You want to identify employees who might be suffering from boreout and help them recognize the problem so they can feel good about work again. Here are the top tell-tale signs.
- Procrastination. Bored-out employees often put off important tasks and focus on tedious work that doesn’t support goals.
- Complacency. They aren’t interested in or don’t care about the work.
- Zealous busyness. Some employees who are bored are the best actors in the Productivity Theater. They try to look busy so no one realizes they’re not. They’re even trying to convince themselves they’re busy enough.
- Absence. They might seem withdrawn at meetings or company events — or “simply be less available or even completely absent from work — marked as present online but not responding, never turning on cameras or commenting during meetings,” says McLane.
- Anxiety. Somewhat surprisingly, employees who suffer from boreout are often stressed and anxious. They panic on deadlines (likely from the procrastination). And they worry about not working enough (but are usually reluctant to bring it up for fear of looking incompetent).
- Disconnection. Because the work doesn’t interest or challenge them, employees become more disconnected from the work, colleagues and company activity.
- Sadness. Boredom often underlies sadness. Because they’re doing less than they’d like, they don’t feel valued or meaningful at work.
- Lack of motivation. The more they’re bored and feeling undervalued, the less likely they’ll be to do more.
HR pros and front-line leaders can’t just “fix” employees who suffer from boreout. Some of them will never be engaged. Others aren’t in right-fit jobs or environments, so they might need to move on.
It’s critical to combat singular boreout because it can spread like a toxin.
“Other negative effects of boreout at a company might include decreased broader team morale, increased turnover, missing innovation and creativity around problem solving, and a host of other negative activities by disengaged employees,” says McLane.
Ideally, you’ll want to work with employees who’ve agreed they’re bored-out (employees who don’t see a problem won’t likely try a prescriptive fix). Here are nine tactics to help:
- Address this in one-on-ones. Whether you still do yearly reviews, or have adopted more popular frequent check-ins, make job compatibility a part of the meetings. Ask employees to gauge interest in their work, level of engagement and ability to get it all done. Ask outright, “Are you ever bored at work?”
- Survey. Do anonymous surveys or gather feedback so you “can gauge how employees are feeling and identify areas where employee morale may be lacking. If possible, see if you can obtain both quantitative and qualitative input for analysis,” suggests McLane.
- Switch up what you can. Spread work among team members as much as possible. Perhaps they can work in weekly or daily rotations, if the work is particularly monotonous. Or move employees between projects.
- Take advantage of down time. For many, boredom kicks in when demand slows or they’re between projects. Encourage employees to use that time to explore other work they’d like try, skills they’d like to learn or jobs they’d like to transition toward.
- Advertise opportunities. Ask all managers to regularly share new projects and tasks that need some extra hands. Then post them as opportunities to volunteer to jump in. This helps get the work done and introduces bored employees to different tasks and challenges.
- Encourage involvement. You can’t force employees to participate in company initiatives, events and groups. But you can make sure they’re aware of those opportunities and welcome to be part. So promote your Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and their activities. Send and post invitations to events and initiatives. Ask champions of those things to personally invite colleagues.
- Build career paths. Ask every department to build “a growth path documented in writing. This provides clear evidence that there is not just room to grow but the expectation that employees will grow and advance,” says McLane.
- Try job crafting. When possible, invite employees to redesign their jobs so it better aligns with their interests and they still get the fundamental requirements of the job done. For instance, someone who loves to be creative can spend more time building ideas and less time doing paperwork.
- Try job sharing. This could work for two people in complementary roles. They might work on a part-time basis in two roles, allowing more novelty and task-switching — and more best practices — in each role.