Boredom at work is associated with a number of negative outcomes, including depression symptoms, high job turnover, and actively engaging in behavior that interferes with the goals of the company/organization (I recently learned this is called “counterproductive work behavior”). These associations may seem intuitive to you, and even perhaps meaningless, unless they are 1) malleable and 2) you are either running an organization or are a bored employee of one. If you are either, this recent study by Madelon van Hooff at the Radboud University Nijmegen and Edwin van Hooft of University of Amsterdam will be of interest to you.
Basically, van Hooff and van Hooft conducted a study to better understand why work-related boredom related to depression symptoms and counterproductive work behavior (CWB). In specific, they looked at whether there were behaviors people engaged in that increased the likelihood that feeling bored would lead to these negative outcomes, and also examined behaviors that may buffer these relationships.
Before I tell you what they did, I think it’s important to explain what they were thinking. The basic premise of their work is that boredom is an emotion, a negative emotion. I would whole-heartedly agree. So, when you are at work, you are engaging in behaviors to achieve your work-related goals; sometimes that is to serve someone, learn something, teach someone, or organize something. They argue that once a person experiences a negative emotion, their behavior shifts to then cope with that negative emotion. So, in their model, boredom highjacks all of the energy you are putting toward your work goals, and redirects it to trying to feel less bored. Facebook anyone? Buzzfeed? Reddit? Extra long coffee breaks? In their model, more boredom in your job would cause you to engage in more boredom coping behaviors, and have less long-term satisfaction in your job, therefore giving way to negative outcomes such as depression and counterproductive work behavior.
In the study, they define counterproductive work behavior as things like stealing equipment from the company, and blaming others for your own mistakes. According to this model, the only way to “treat” the problem is to give employees other behaviors to cope with their boredom in ways that promote their learning and engagement. Van Hooff and van Hooft call this Job Crafting. More on this later.
To conduct their study, they recruited 200 adults (55% female, ~ age 39) to complete 2 online surveys, 1 month apart. These participants represented a range of professions including IT Specialists, Project managers, teachers, and secretaries. It’s also important to note that 85% of the sample had at least a bachelor’s degree.
First, the participants completed a survey about their demographic information and boredom susceptibility at work. For the purposes of this study, they defined boredom from an emotional and cognitive perspective, including questions like “I get bored with my work” and “My job goes by slowly.” One month later, they completed an online survey about their behaviors used to cope with boredom (taking long breaks, pretending to be busy, and involvement in non-work activities during the day to kill time), their counterproductive work behaviors, and symptoms of depression (I feel sad and lonely). They also had the participants complete information about their Job Crafting behaviors. Job crafting refers to an employee’s report of how often they seek guidance or support on work related tasks, seek opportunities to learn and develop new skills, and start new projects.
What they found is probably not surprising, but also very valuable no matter whether you are a manager or employee. Basically, they found that boredom was only related to counterproductive work behavior and depression if the employee engaged in boredom coping behaviors. This means that feeling bored doesn’t lead to feelings of depression or employees who steal and are not accountable for their actions, only their boredom coping behaviors create that link. This is good news because boredom at work is probably inevitable, albeit variably for different people and professions.
They also found that engaging in job crafting buffered the association between feeling bored and these boredom coping behaviors. This is good news because it means that we, as employees and managers, can do something to eliminate the negative consequences of boredom to our health and productivity. To learn more about how, we have to look more closely at how the researchers defined job crafting. Job crafting includes anything an employee can do to change their job characteristics, such as:
- increasing job demands that promote learning new skills
- decreasing job demands that hinder their work like dealing with people with “unreasonable expectations”
- increasing social resources like receiving more feedback, coaching and mentoring on how to grow in their position and job.
As an employer, job crafting can actually be facilitated for employees by making opportunities more obvious. For example, offering opportunities for employees to learn new skills to make familiar and easy tasks more challenging and engaging, offering opportunities for positive feedback and mentoring, and suggesting new projects employees can initiate within the scope of their position and goals of the organization.
Obviously, different jobs have different latitude when it comes to opportunities for job crafting, with one end of the spectrum being companies like Google where employees are expected to be developing their own service or tech projects and on the other places in the major commercial service industry like Starbucks. Come to think of it though, even my local Starbucks has a rotating board of Barista’s drink of the day which features a creation of one of the employees. Even this is an opportunity to reduce feelings of boredom within the work environment in service of the well-being of the employee and the business.
While the findings here are compelling and informative from many perspectives, it’s important to keep in mind that they are limited as well. Most importantly, these findings are not causal and boredom likely does not cause depressive symptoms. In fact it is highly likely that depressed individuals are more likely to experience negative emotions, like boredom, at work. Regardless, these data make a larger point that warrants consideration…
Boredom is bad for everyone, and it appears that we can more effectively cope with that as managers and employees by seeking opportunities to learn from whatever we are doing and initiate new projects to deal with boredom, rather than waste time avoiding the boredom.
van Hooff, M. L., & van Hooft, E. A. (2014). Boredom at Work: Proximal and Distal Consequences of Affective Work-Related Boredom. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 19(3), 348 –359.