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Three Sources of Boredom in Today's Workplace -- And What Helps

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Are you feeling bored with your job or career these days? Workplace boredom can be as stressful and damaging as career uncertainty or demands for overwork -- perhaps more so. Sometimes it creates embarrassing situations, as it did for Joel, a mid-level executive. He felt so bored that he sneaked out of his office one afternoon and went to a movie. When it was over, he ran into his boss coming out of the same theater.

I think boredom with your work and career is also one of the biggest contributors to work-related stress -- even in today's environment of economic downturn and career uncertainties. The less you work at work, the more internal agony you will feel.

Up to 70 percent of all illness is rooted in stress, and much of that is workplace related. It results in $300 billion in lost revenue, and $200 million in lost workdays. Whether you are an employee or employer, boredom hurts. It casts a pall on the whole organization and creates a demoralized, de-energized atmosphere. Furthermore, it blocks creativity, which will undercut a company's ability to stay abreast of the marketplace competition, especially in these tumultuous times.

If you've been feeling bored with your work or career, you're not alone. Curt W. Coffman, global practice leader at the Gallup Organization, has confirmed that: "We know that 55 percent of all U.S. employees are not engaged at work. They are basically in a holding pattern. They feel like their capabilities aren't being tapped into and utilized and therefore, they really don't have a psychological connection to the organization."

Similarly, the Corporate Leadership Council surveyed 50,000 workers around the world, asking them such questions such as: "Do you love your job? Do you love your team? Are you excited by the work you do every day?" Thirteen percent said no, no, and very much no. "They are disaffected, because they are basically completely checked out from the work they do," said Jean Martin-Weinstein, managing director.

It doesn't take much of a leap to conclude that employees who are better utilized feel more fulfilled, more engaged; they work more productively. For example, this survey by Sirota Consulting LLC of more than 800,000 employees at 61 organizations worldwide: It found those with "too little work" gave an overall job satisfaction rating of 49 out of 100, while those with "too much work" had a rating of 57. Jeffrey M. Saltzman, chief executive of Sirota, said "When you say you have too much work to do, other things are happening in your head: 'I'm valued by the organization. They're giving me responsibility.' That's better than being in the other place where you say I'm not of value in this place."

Why People Become Bored With Their Work

So what causes boredom, and what can you do about it? I think there are three specific sources in today's workplace culture, but also some broader, behind-the-scenes reasons. In this post I'll describe the three sources. All of them are debilitating, but knowing what they are can help liberate you from the prison they create. In a later post, I'll write about some broader reasons for workplace boredom -- a growing shift in what people look for in their careers today.

"I just don't belong here" -- Julia said that to me, after realizing that she had "never really meshed" with her job. She wasn't critical of her company or her boss. They just worked in a way that was too plodding and methodical for her. For someone else, it might feel just fine. This source of boredom results from major disconnect, a mismatch between you and your work. It might be between the job functions and your talents, your experience, your values -- all of the aspects of yourself, emotionally, intellectually, creatively -- that enable you to perform at your best. Or, it might include that job's potential for future opportunities. If the wrong mesh exists between yourself and features of your work -- your role, the job environment, the management culture -- prepare to become bored.

What helps in this situation is, first, curtail the tendency to get hung up on feelings of frustration or resentment about the fact that the situation is what it is. This is where you can use the practice of "indifference" that I described in relation to intimate relationships: becoming "indifferent" to your own internal reaction to the external situation. That, in turn, opens the door to becoming proactive. And that's an important part of building resilience in the face of a debilitating conflict, and finding a better solution. For example, start looking for a different situation, one that provides better mesh between you and your job. That might be within the same organization or somewhere else. Seek out helpful advice and direction from others -- maybe within the company or from others in the same career. It doesn't matter whether they're peers, more senior people, mentors, or even people at lower levels.

Put your energy in the service of creating a positive change rather than trying to rectify an obvious mismatch with a situation that's not going to change. When you view your situation impersonally, with "indifference" in the sense I've described, you're more likely to spot a no-win situation pretty accurately.

"I've Become Invisible" -- Elaine was at mid-level in the marketing area of large media corporation. She fell out of favor with a new boss because of changes in company politics above her. Now she found herself essentially sidelined -- assigned work beneath her skills and experience. This kind of boredom results from underutilization. You're rendered invisible because your talents, skills, and capabilities are not being utilized. Moreover, they may be misused or stifled. 

Elaine's response to her situation illustrates what can help in a proactive, resilient way. She sized it up as a problem to be solved, not a "poor-me" situation to be lamented or feel victimized by.

She began calling attention to the situation by asking for new assignments or reassignment. She stressed that she wanted to contribute more to the company as a collaborative member. At the same time she sought out support from others in her network within the company. She became determined to find out what prospects existed to change the situation. "Either it changes," she said, "or I'm out of here. I'm not about to coast along, hoping for something that's not going to happen."

Contrast her behavior with Bruce's, an economist who worked for a federal government agency. He told me he had become "shelved" and was given no substantive work, because of a political squabble higher up the ladder in his government agency. So he decided to read books, write academic papers which didn't get published... and collect his paycheck. That's typical of negative coping, which can fuel depression and diminished self-worth, rather than healthy, resilient action.

"I need more 'space'" -- Lack of opportunity for new learning and development creates feelings of confinement, a third source of boredom. Today's career professionals want opportunities for new learning, continued growth and having impact on something that's visible. When there are too few of those opportunities, you don't have room to stretch. You'll feel mounting boredom. Proactive behavior here takes the form of scouting out opportunities for expanding and enlarging your skills, whether in the same company or a different one. If you're afraid even to consider doing that, you're keeping yourself on a dead-end street.

A good illustration of a proactive attitude when you're confined is what Roger, a 35 year-old engineer in an aerospace firm, told me: "I'm always looking for a challenge that I think is just beyond what I'm capable of. It's a little scary, but fun at the same time, to stretch myself. That's what I need to keep growing."

Karen's another example. "I'd been feeling pretty stagnant and uncreative," she told me. As an experiment, she decided to stretch beyond her existing skills in a new direction within her organization. "It was a little risky," she laughed, "because I volunteered to take on a project that I didn't know anything about." It was a gamble for her, "plunging headfirst," as she put it. But her boss was supportive, and she saw that it was an opportunity for new growth. It paid off. She did well, and senior management rewarded her for what she had achieved. She learned that putting herself in a situation in which she had to use herself in new, creative ways produced new growth.

Steps You Can Take To Liberate Yourself

The first step towards freeing yourself from any of these three kinds of boredom is seeing your situation with a clear eye. Step outside of your own narrow vantage point, rather than becoming trapped within it or blocked by feelings of frustration and resentment. When you do that, you're better able to direct your energy towards finding a better situation. Next:

  • List any situations, jobs, or creative projects from the past where you felt you were at your best, when things went really well. Identify the resources or conditions you had going for you that supported your success. What kinds of people were your co-workers or boss? Did they help or hinder? From that information, identify the specifics of the career and work environment that you really need to be at your best, including which to avoid, and make a list of all of them.
  • Scope out any opportunities for more stimulation or greater challenge that you can spot within your present situation or organization. Ask around, or network to find things you may not have noticed yourself. Craft a strategy to pursue them.
  • Meet with your boss and explain that you want to take on a greater challenge; or that you want to stretch in a new direction. How do you read his or her response in terms of your future there?
  • Seek out an opportunity outside of work, maybe through a course, a seminar or workshop, or a volunteer opportunity, in order to learn something that enhances your existing skills or that builds new ones.

As you put together all of the above information and feedback, aim towards identifying the kind of work environment, people, organizational culture, or type of work you need that energizes you. List them, and compare them with your present situation. This will help you not only deal with boredom, but also build capacity for the heightened collaboration and teamwork needed for successful careers within successful companies within today's fluid, interconnected world.

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