Boreout? Chronic boredom at work is insidious

When we’re thinking about goals and New Year’s resolutions, we should be seeking new opportunities, learning new skills, taking on more responsibility to counter ‘bore out’ – Advaita Naidoo, Africa MD at Jack Hammer.

SIMON BROWN: I’m chatting now with Advaita Naidoo, Africa MD at Jack Hammer. Advaita, I appreciate the early morning. Burnout, I think most of us understand what burnout is. Some of us might have had the unfortunate experience of it. You were writing towards the end of last year around ‘bore out’. What is boreout?

ADVAITA NAIDOO: I don’t want to stress [it] and we are not minimising burnout, which is quite debilitating in a work context. But it has received a lot of attention, as you said. But because it’s less prevalent, boreout can be quite insidious, a silent root killer.

It’s essentially chronic boredom at work. It’s a lack of stimulation.

Adam Grant calls it ‘languishing’ and it’s really characterised by low motivation, low challenge, low interest that results from having too little to do, too much routine. It sounds trivial, but I think employers should appreciate that it can mean low productivity.

Read: Rust out: why boredom at work can be harmful and what employers can do about it

SIMON BROWN: Yes. And maybe too many meetings – which we spoke about last year. I take your point. The classic cliché is, ‘I work too hard’. But the flip side is you don’t work hard, you sit there and you’re wondering what to do with your sort of nine hours of eight to five if you find yourself in the space. This is bad, not only for the staff member but it’s not good for the business as well. It is debilitating.

What do we do to try and get around it? I think a lot of listeners are like, yes, I understand that boreout. It makes sense.

ADVAITA NAIDOO: Well, absolutely. This isn’t something that we’ve documented in a vacuum as a recruitment company. We receive almost three times the number of job enquiries in November and December than over the rest of the year. The narrative typically is: ‘I don’t feel challenged. I’m ready for a change.’

You’re right. It is something that a far greater number of people can identify with. If you think about pop culture, there’s the cartoon … there’s the movie Office Space. Chronic boredom or lack of challenge are core themes. And so, for employers to take note, it can lead to employee attrition. As I said, it impacts productivity because bored employees work slower. They make more mistakes. They, like you said, waste time on irrelevant activities, kind of just like twiddling their thumbs.

And then the knock-on effect is on morale and culture and the reputation of the company.

So not everyone suffers with boreout, but we live in a world where we are now more aware of our emotions and our mental health and our triggers and our boundaries, so that feeling of being physically but not mentally present is probably quite conscious for a lot of people and it seems like a simplistic solution – sorry, to get to your point about the solutions, but with that point in the year where we’re thinking about goals and our New Year’s resolutions. And so we should be thinking about seeking new opportunities, learning new skills, taking on more responsibility.

Another hot topic for last year was AI. And AI has meant that a lot of tasks can be automated. So why not automate what can be automated, and use that as an incentive to seek out more creative activities that are going to keep you more engaged for the year?

SIMON BROWN: When I was working in the corporate world, we had the performance reviews. They were pretty much backward-looking. There were then some KPIs [key performance indicators] and the like, which were more forward-looking. It’s focusing on that and saying to your line manager, or whoever it is, it’s case of, ‘I need more challenge’. I need to pass some of this boring stuff on to AI or a personal assistant or something. And let’s s bring some proper challenges into the process, because changing a job is one option but, I don’t know, to me it doesn’t seem the ideal option.

ADVAITA NAIDOO: It’s not, especially not if you like the company, you like the culture. And you’re making the assumption that going to a different environment is going to mean less bore out. That’s not always the case – not to put too much responsibility on the employee, on the employer’s side. I think a lot of people get terrified and think these things mean massive programmatic change; but we can also take stock of whether the disengagement is isolated or systemic, and grow from there.

There are things that can be done; bolster or pay more attention to your learning and development programme. Make sure managers, like you say, set goals for their teams and help them work towards them.

Make sure people are being used to the best effect in line not with their current skills, but in line with their potential.

I think a big thing is appreciating that people want to feel valued and that their work has meaning. So even if the work is somewhat repetitive or tedious, that’s no reason not to appreciate the effort that went into it or the person that did it.

SIMON BROWN: I like that point. It’s not about the current skills; it’s about the potential that perhaps more than anything is at the core of it.

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