According to a spate of recent headlines, the dangerous epidemic of workplace boredom is stalking the cubicles of developed nations. According to one Gallup poll, some 71% of workers are not engaged, or are actively disengaged from their jobs. Sandi Mann, a UK psychologist, has deemed boredom “the new stress.” But while plenty of organizations talk about how to manage stress on the job, few talk about how to deal with boredom. Probably because most organizations don’t want to admit that their employees are bored.
Boredom takes many forms. There is the usual version: not enough to do. I’ve been in a few jobs like this over the years, where you’re supposed to be there for a certain number of hours per day, but for whatever reason, the work you’re tasked to do doesn’t fill the available space. This is often a function of being fairly low on the totem poll. You can try to ask for more work, but the work itself may not be that pleasant or interesting, which limits one’s motivation to do that. These days, this leads to a lot of internet surfing. I’m not really sure what it led to before that. A reporter once described to me a bureaucratic office she was covering where the people who worked there would pack up their things at 4:45, finish the packing at 4:50, and then sit there until 5:00, when they could go.
But you can be very busy and still be bored too. It’s not that you don’t have enough work. It’s that you don’t feel like doing any of the work you have. Even working for myself, I’ve occasionally found myself in this sort of rut. I’ve taken on a lot of projects, but none have me jabbering to everyone I meet about what I’m working on. Meetings and conference calls can be boring in general, but they’re even more tedious if you don’t care about the content.
So what can one do to fight boredom? While I believe that you can turn the job you have into the job you want, sometimes it’s not worth the effort. If your current job is very, very far away from the job you want, then chances are good that there’s another job that’s much closer. Start spending some of the time you’re bored at your current job brainstorming how to land a new one. You don’t necessarily need to be sending your resume around during work hours (though if you get caught that could certainly spark a much needed discussion!). But think through your contacts, research what jobs are out there, figure out what conferences or professional events you should be attending, etc.
But what if the job is, overall, a good one? What if you’re just in a bit of a rut? What if you have a lot of work, but it’s just not work you like?
One idea is to sit tight for a bit. The idea that we should be perfectly fulfilled by our jobs would certainly strike our ancestors — who spent their “careers” in coal mines or quarries or eking out a living via subsistence farming — as rather funny. Do what you can to make the rest of your life more exciting. Stake out a big personal goal: run a marathon, join the board of a non-profit you admire, build an elaborate Lego structure with your kids. In time, you’ll likely wind up on a different project.
Or you can contrive to figure out what you’d find more interesting, and start investing hours in turning your career in that direction. A few years ago, I decided that I’d love to write a book about the changing ways people were spending their time. Having written a previous book that didn’t do too well, though, I was kind of starting from scratch. But I carved out time in the middle of other assignments to crank out different versions of book proposals, write articles on how people spent their time for anyone who’d run them, and so forth. Eventually, I was able to write my book on time management (168 Hours). The doors that’s opened up have led down much more interesting hallways than the ones I was on before. That means less boredom.
Have you ever changed up a job to conquer boredom? Or decided to jump ship instead?
Photo courtesy flickr user Waldo Jaquith