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Boredom burnout syndrome is a psychological disorder that causes physical illness. This theory was first expounded in 2007 in Diagnose Boreout, a book by Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin, two Swiss business consultants.
Symptoms and consequences
The first symptoms of boredom at work are demotivation, anxiety, and sadness. In the long term, boreout will develop, generating a strong feeling of self-deprecation, which can turn into depression.
The consequences of boreout for employees are numerous both psychologically and physically and more or less serious. On the psychological level, boredom, dissatisfaction, and permanent frustration gradually lead the victim of a boreout into a vicious circle. They gradually lose the will to act at the professional level and at the personal level. To the loss of self-esteem is added the constant anxiety of being discovered. The boreout victim lives with the constant fear that their supervisor, colleagues, or friends will discover their inactivity and duplicity. A state of constant sadness takes hold of the employee, provoking crises of tears for no particular reason. Being constantly confronted with the emptiness of their professional life and their uselessness in society, the employee is in great pain. The suffering all the more accentuated because it cannot be shared and if it is, is not understood. This can lead to serious mental disorders such as personality destruction or even depression or suicide. Boreout is also a trigger for physical diseases such as certain types of epilepsy caused by stress or exhaustion, severe sleep disorders, hand and voice tremors, shingles, and ulcers.
On the physical side, according to the British "Bored to death" study, employees who are bored at work are two to three times more likely to be victims of cardiovascular events than those whose employment is stimulating. The permanent anxiety in which the employee lives exhausts him physically. Fatigue is constant despite physical inactivity. Boreout can lead to eating disorders such as untimely nibbling or loss of appetite. Some people may use alcohol or drugs to overcome their discomfort and thus develop a harmful addiction.
According to Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin, the absence of meaningful tasks, rather than the presence of stress, is many workers' chief problem. Boreout consists of three elements: boredom, lack of challenge, and lack of interest. These authors disagree with the common perceptions that a demotivated employee is lazy; instead, they claim that the employee has lost interest in work tasks. Those suffering from boreout are "dissatisfied with their professional situation" in that they are frustrated at being prevented, by institutional mechanisms or obstacles as opposed to by their own lack of aptitude, from fulfilling their potential (as by using their skills, knowledge, and abilities to contribute to their company's development) and/or from receiving official recognition for their efforts.
The authors suggest that the reason for researchers' and employers' overlooking the magnitude of boreout-related problems is that they are underreported because revealing them exposes a worker to the risk of social stigma and adverse economic effects. (By the same token, many managers and co-workers consider an employee's level of workplace stress to be indicative of that employee's status in the workplace.)
There are several reasons boreout might occur. The authors note that boreout is unlikely to occur in many non-office jobs where the employee must focus on finishing a specific task (e.g., a surgeon) or helping people in need (e.g., a childcare worker or nanny). In terms of group processes, it may well be that the boss or certain forceful or ambitious individuals with the team take all the interesting work leaving only a little of the most boring tasks for the others. Alternatively, the structure of the organization may simply promote this inefficiency. Of course, few if any employees (even among those who would prefer to leave) want to be fired or laid off, so the vast majority are unwilling and unlikely to call attention to the dispensable nature of their role.
As such, even if an employee has very little work to do, s/he gives the appearance of "looking busy" (e.g., ensuring that a work-related document is open on one's computer, covering one's desk with file folders, and carrying briefcases (whether empty or loaded) from work to one's home and vice versa).
Werder and Rothlin cite research into time wasting at work carried out by AOL and salary.com in 2005. The survey of 10,000 employees showed that the average worker frittered away 2.09 hours per eight-hour day outside their break time on non-work related tasks. The reason most often cited for this behavior (by 33% of subjects; see study methodology for whether subjects could cite more than one reason) was management's failure to assign specific tasks to specific employees.
The authors note that the main response of many companies to these problems is to increase their monitoring and surveillance. Internet use may be monitored and a number of websites (e.g., video game websites or social networking sites) may be blocked. However, the authors argue that these monitoring and surveillance methods are neither effective nor conducive to a productive and fulfilling working environment. First of all, tech-savvy employees can get around some of the monitoring and surveillance methods (e.g., by using encrypted proxies that carry no target-specific information in their URLs).
Even if employers block both sites used for personal business (e.g., social-networking and web-based email sites) and sites configured as proxies, employees can circumvent the block entirely with devices with data plans such as smartphones. As well, if employers monitor employees' telephone use, whether by tracking numbers dialed and/or by tracking time spent on the phone, employees can simply use their personal phones to make calls, whether at their desk or (if individual offices are "bugged") by slipping into an area not monitored.
The symptoms of boreout lead employees to adopt coping or work-avoidance strategies that create the appearance that they are already under stress, suggesting to management both that they are heavily "in demand" as workers and that they should not be given additional work: "The boreout sufferer's aim is to look busy, to not be given any new work by the boss and, certainly, not to lose the job."
Boreout strategies include:
- Stretch your work strategy: This involves drawing out tasks so they take much longer than necessary. For example, if an employee's sole assignment during a work week is a report that takes three work days, the employee will "stretch" this three days of work over the entire work week. Stretching strategies vary from employee to employee. Some employees may do the entire report in the first three days, and then spend the remaining days surfing the Internet, planning their holiday, browsing online shopping websites, sending personal e-mails, and so on (all the while ensuring that their workstation is filled with the evidence of "hard work", by having work documents ready to be switched-to on the screen). Alternatively, some employees may "stretch" the work over the entire work week by breaking up the process with a number of pauses to send personal e-mails, go outside for a cigarette, get a coffee, chat with friends in other parts of the company, or even go to the washroom for a 10-minute nap.
- Pseudo-commitment strategy: The pretence of commitment to the job by attending work and sitting at the desk, sometimes after work hours. As well, demotivated employees may stay at their desks to eat their lunch to give the impression that they are working through the lunch hour; in fact, they may be sending personal e-mails or reading online articles unrelated to work. An employee who spends the afternoon on personal phone calls may learn how to mask this by sounding serious and professional during their responses, to give the impression that it is a work-related call. For example, if a bureaucrat is chatting with a friend to set up a dinner date, when the friend suggests a time, the bureaucrat can respond that "we can probably fit that meeting time in."
Consequences of boreout for employees include dissatisfaction, fatigue as well as ennui and low self-esteem, while for the business itself there are the problems of an unnecessary financial burden, high levels of sick leave and low company loyalty. The paradox of boreout is that despite hating the situation, employees feel unable to ask for more challenging tasks, to raise the situation with superiors or even look for a new job. The authors do however propose a solution: first, one must analyse one's personal job situation, then look for a solution within the company and finally if that does not help, look for a new job. If all else fails, turning to friends, family, or other co-workers for support can be extremely beneficial until any of the previously listed options become viable.
- Burnout (psychology)
- Group dynamics
- Social alienation
- Office Space (film)
- Banishment room
- Boreout! Overcoming workplace demotivation. Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin, (English edition) Kogan Page, October 2008.
- The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out – The Shocking Truth About Office Life. David Bolchover, Capstone, September 2005.
- City Slackers: Workers of the world you are wasting your time. Steve McKevitt, Cyan Books, April 2006.
- Wasted Time At Work Costing Companies Billions Salary.com
- Diagnosis Boreout Book website
- David Bolchover's website includes articles on Boreout
- No-Nonsense Answers and Advice 75 things you can do when you are bored.