Why companies lose best employees due to workplace boredom


Under the Microscope:Asked to think of boring work, most people would imagine intellectually undemanding repetitive work such as on the assembly line or at the supermarket checkout. However, job boredom is now reported in a wide range of jobs, well beyond the mechanised jobs traditionally associated with boredom.

In an interesting article in The Psychologist, February 2007, Sandi Mann argues that the recent boom in workplace boredom is fuelled by the ever-increasing demands of meetings, paperwork, routinisation, information overload and bureaucracy. And I can tell you from personal experience, such pressures all add significant boredom to the work of the university academic.

Mann defines boredom as that state you enter when none of the possible things you can realistically do appeal to you. In boredom "the level of stimulation is perceived to be unsatisfactorily low, leading to increased neural arousal in search of variety. Failure to satisfy this leads to the feeling of boredom".

Extroverts are probably bored more easily than introverts.

Boredom has useful functions, Mann reports. It alerts us that something is wrong and stimulates us to seek a challenge - paradoxically boredom can energise us.

Boredom also communicates our values and beliefs to others and allows us to switch off from unimportant inputs. Evolution probably selected boredom as a useful tool to allow us to stop attending to non-useful stimuli and to attend to useful and non-threatening stimuli.

The early research on workplace boredom concentrated on repetitive task situations, eg assembly line workers, long-distance truckers, clerical employees, mechanical press operators, and so on. Contemporary research clearly shows that work boredom is not restricted to such blue-collar and repetitive clerical work. Work boredom seems to be widespread. For example, in a 1998 survey 45 per cent of hiring experts reported that companies lost top workers because they were bored with the work (JM Steinhauer, Incentive, Vol. 173 (11), p.7, 1999). Half the workers in the financial services say they are often, or always, bored at work.

The following characteristics tend to make work interesting: varied tasks that have high significance for the worker; work performed under the worker's control; regular feedback about performance; interesting co-workers; freedom to organise own work-schedule and to decide when to take breaks.

Trends in the modern workplace tend to oppose the aforementioned characteristics. There is now a high degree of automation initiated by manipulation of impersonal technology. There are narrowing opportunities to use skills, to be involved in decision-making and to interact with fellow workers. Mounting paperwork to satisfy bureaucratic bean-counting and pressure to attend countless meetings add to the boredom in the modern workplace. Eighty two per cent of white-collar workers report they spend one third of their time in meetings.

There is also a mis-match between education and the demands of the workplace. Our mass-education third-level system is now churning out graduates in unprecedented numbers and many are overqualified for the jobs they are forced to accept. A friend told me recently about a parish priest who said during Sunday Mass that he had been shopping in his local supermarket and he noted that most of the check-out operators had university degrees.

There are many negative effects of boredom, including poor work performance, accidents, absenteeism, sleepiness, and stress-related health problems. There are many ways to counter boredom in the workplace. For example, ergonomic experts need to look at the impact of automated workplaces and effect changes to allow operators to develop and use more skills. Many organisations need seriously to tackle the over-use of meetings. Staff need training in knowing when to call a meeting, in how to chair a meeting, in how to get business done efficiently and in how to reach decisions.

The university, in ways, is becoming an increasingly boring place for academics. Much of this is caused by the effects of over-legislation by Government and the EU in the interests of accountability for spending taxpayers' money and general bureaucratic control. The university, as always, is over-eager to be seen to comply to the ultimate degree with every last sub-clause of the requirements of external authorities.

Much time must now be devoted to compliance with quality assurance, health and safety, professional development, performance evaluation, and so on. Committees have proliferated and pressure to attend meetings is relentless.

Endless courses, seminars and "think-ins" are organised to help lecturers develop their teaching skills. Junior members of staff in particular feel they have to participate in much of this or it will count against them for promotion. At the same time, we are all expected to teach and to research, our two core activities, much more intensively than we did in the past. The problem is to find the time, given all the meetings, courses and paperwork. We need a course on how to pour a pint into a half-pint pot.

Let me finish off with two little jokes to relieve the boredom:

Q.What is the difference between a PhD in mathematics and a large pizza?

A.A large pizza can feed a family of four.

Exam question:Expand (a+b)9

Answer:(a + b)9

William Reville is Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Public Awareness of Science Officer at UCC - understandingscience.ucc.ie