Did you hear the one about the French man who sued his employer because he didn’t have enough to do at work? Yes, you read right. In 2016 Frederic Desnard took his employer to court claiming that the lack of stimulation and meaningful responsibilities in his job led to a serious breakdown in his mental, emotional and physical health.
While the idea of not being pushed up against it with people breathing down your neck at every minute sounds dreamy in theory, especially if you’re one of the people with way too much to do and too little time to do it, research has shown that the opposite – not having enough to do and lack of stimulation – is equally if not more damaging to our wellbeing and mental health.
So much so, the term has its own name – Boreout and it consists of three elements: boredom, lack of challenge, and lack of interest. According to the consultants who coined the term, it’s the absence of meaningful tasks, rather than the presence of stress, that is the chief problem for most people. If left unchecked, Boreout can result in exhaustion, damage to self esteem, poor concentration, mental fatigue, anxiety and depression.
Furthermore, and if you weren't already convinced, according a British study depressingly named "Bored to death", employees who are bored at work are up to three times more likely to be victims of cardiovascular problems than those whose employment is stimulating. And in another study it was found was that civil servants who reported being very bored were 2.5 times more likely to die of a heart problem than those who hadn't reported being bored – that’s the same ratio as the risk of death from smoking v not-smoking!
On top of that people are unlikely to do anything about it or flag it up. Few if any employees 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 someone has very little work to do, they try to “look busy”, having half written emails open, covering their desk in paperwork, working late or through lunches, all to give the impression that they’re really very occupied.
If you feel that you could be suffering from Bore-out, here are some tips to help you turn it around:
Step back and try to work out what it is that’s boring you and what you’d like instead. When you’re clear about what you want to be doing you’re more likely to be able to find opportunities to do it.
Meet with your boss or even with your boss’s boss (if you do the latter be tactful) and ask for new challenges, it may be more responsibilities, shadowing other people or getting involved in wider organisational projects. If you’ve already given some thought as to what that could look like (as per tip 1) you’re already a step ahead.
If more work or more interesting work in your current company isn’t immediately an option, can you reduce your hours in your current job and work part time instead? You can use the free time to explore other paid work that may be more interesting, meaningful and challenging or, if finances allow, use it as time for you to pursue non-work related interests and hobbies or engage in some further education and study.
Take the time to make connections with people. Get to know new people and ask them about their jobs - inside or outside of your company and industry. Whilst positive human connections in themselves are shown to positively impact wellbeing and engagement, it may have an additional side-benefit of leading to new career or work opportunities if you’re better known and networked.
Get more involved in meaningful and stretching things outside of work. Keep your brain busy and energy up by finding stimulation in other places. The brain is a muscle, if you’re not using it it will deteriorate.
Work with a coach to help you figure out what might be more stimulating and meaningful instead and/or to help you find new ways to improve or build meaning into your work.
If none of this is possible, rather than fester and wither your days away by staying there, dust off your CV and start to look for other work. In the long term you will benefit mentally, emotionally and even physically. Sometimes the easy life isn’t the easy life and a bit of positive pressure can be transformational.