A story

Interestingly, there is this multinational company whose training explicitly explores boredom. They start with the scenario “You are working.  But haven’t had a break.  What you are doing seems meaningless to you.  You notice an unpleasant feeling slowly rise within. Your mind wanders. You fidget. And reach for a sweet. Or crave a cigarette.  You want to escape, to be anywhere but here.  There is only one word for it.  You are bored at work”.

And perhaps now with Covid19 restrictions, that boredom is stirring more than ever.  Maybe you have coped, even liked the enforced ‘retreat’. But now feeling ‘over it’. Restless.  You are tired of Zoom calls and want human contact.  And you feel stuck in this ambiguous time. Of coping with the ‘new normal’ and wondering what the future holds.  Which doesn’t help with motivation.

The leader goes on, talking from their own experience and says “ we want to do all we can to help reduce the likelihood of you being bored with your work. Through the tasks we give you. As well as how we embrace personal differences. We care about the environment we create for you. And seek to match the right people with the right job. But you also have to take responsibility. And we are going to help you learn to do that. To listen to your boredom when it does arise. Because there are benefits to be had”.

Well I don’t know if this company exists. But arguably it should.

A neglected emotion

Boredom.   Described as one of the plagues of modern society. It affects our work and our lives generally.  Probably because we neglect it as an emotion ourselves, it has been considered the neglected emotion in research.

Or perhaps it is because it’s propping up a few industries.

Mum wouldn’t let us say we were bored.  How can you be bored in this beautiful world she would say?   She has a point.  But it is common.  It may be inevitable.  And it exists for a reason. It can manifest itself in disengagement or dissatisfaction. In  disruption or destruction. As well as curiosity and creativity. Of change.

Managing its gifts

If we can learn to manage our boredom, in a covid19 situation or post one, we can reduce its negative impacts. In learning to listen to it, we can embrace its gifts.

We can draw on some of the research to do the following.

  • Task true: Too little, too much, are you getting the task level right?   Fisher (1993) distinguishes 3 ways tasks can create boredom.  We can actually not have enough work (quantitative underload). It can be repetitive and not utilise our skills (qualitative underload).  In the words of  organisational poet David Whyte, “work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us, yet exhausts the narrow part we bring to the door”.   On the other side of the spectrum, our tasks can also be so difficult and confusing we can’t hold our attention (qualitative overload).   I do wonder how many UN meetings suffer because the issues at hand are so complex, our leaders switch off. From sheer overloading.
  • Care for the environment: We know from running leadership programmes that learning and performance is maximised when there is both high support and challenge. This is true also of the organisational environment. What are you doing to ensure this, in practical, intellectual and emotional terms? Furthermore, whether it is in the virtual international board meeting or on the factory floor, providing variation and opportunities for interaction are important. Ensuring breaks and reducing red tape all serve to help.  And knowing the impact of social influence on perceptions, how are you and your peers talking about the work?
  • Embrace people difference: Boredom isn’t an attitude. It is transient.  In that we can feel bored one moment and not the next.  We all have different boredom thresholds.  People likely to get bored more often may be amongst the most interesting. They can be sensation seeking extroverts. Or be so fearful that they shut themselves off.  There are even those who take pleasure out of boredom.  How does your recruitment cater for differences?  Being aware of our thresholds influences the work we choose.  Research done on medical and psychology practitioners, for example, distinguish between those higher sensation seekers who choose to work in crisis intervention situations (such as emergency rooms and rape crisis centres) and those peers who work in nonemergency settings.
  • Max the match:  It goes without saying boredom is less likely to happen when there is a good fit between the task and person.   Asking the psychologist used to working in emergency conditions, to go and work in the court probably isn’t the best fit.  However it is also about the match between the situation on offer and what the person wants.  If the psychologist sees what’s in it for them, that will help significantly.  What are you doing to help people understand the value of the work, to them?

Mindful boredom 

Notwithstanding the importance of the above to reduce the likelihood of boredom, the challenge for ourselves is to actually hold our nerve. To let the boredom exist and speak its wisdom.  Kiechell (1984)6 noted bored executives often “start to bug people”. By attempting to micromanage subordinates. Or get tempted to acquire another company just for the excitement.  So rather than channel our boredom in potentially unhelpful ways.  If we can train ourselves to look at it mindfully, there are fruits to be had.

Mindfully, we learn to notice those feelings inside us when they arise.    We observe them with openness and non judgement. And without reacting in our automatic familiar ways. Rather we sit with them. And accept their transient nature. And we listen to what they are trying to tell us to do.  This is because boredom is often a sign that we need to get curious. Something needs to change.

Listen to your boredom from this mindful state. Then you will have a greater chance of responding in a constructive way.

It could be you need to…

  • Change activity and take a break. To engage with others. Or go and do that more urgent task occupying your mind
  • Ask for more or less support/ challenge and understand what’s ‘in it for me’
  • Engage in a ‘beginners mind’ to come into the situation afresh. Think positively (for it is a beautiful world after all) about what you are grateful for. In this moment. And offer empathy and compassion to yourself and others
  • Take a new perspective of your job. To make it more interesting through new goal setting
  • Speak your truth. And challenge the status quo with new ideas
  • Commit to choosing a path that fulfils your own deepest needs and desires.

Interesting how many options there are in being bored at work.

Sources:

  • Fisher, C. D. (1993). Boredom at work: A neglected concept. Human Relations, 46, 395-417.
  • Pekr, R; Goetz, T; Daniels, L. M.; Stupnisky, R. H.; Perry, Raymond P. (2010) Boredom in achievement settings: Exploring control – value antecedents and performance outcomes of a neglected emotion, Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 531-549
  • Klapp, O. (1986). Overload and boredom. New York: Greenwood Press. And Spacks, P. M. ( 1995). Boredom: The literary history of a state of mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Quoted in Pekr, R. et al (2010)
  • Whyte David, The Heart Aroused, Audio Book
  • http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141218-why-boredom-is-good-for-you
  • http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130507-does-boredom-give-you-pleasure
  • Best C.L & Kirkpatrick, D.G. (1971) Psychological profiles of rape crisis counsellors, Psychological reports, 40, 1127-1134 AND Irey, P.A. (1974), Personality dimensions of crisis interveners vs academic psychologists, traditional clinicians, and paraprofessionals, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Southern llinois University.  Quoted in Fisher (1993)
  • Kiechell,W. (1984) Chairman of the bored, Fortune, March, 175-176. Quoted in Fisher (1993)
  • This article was also gifted to www.impactinternational.com
  • Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash
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