The New Boredom

Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO,  July/August 2014

Chronic boredom kills. It’s associated with higher rates of various addictions, mood disorders, and behavioral excesses.  Employees who are chronically bored at work are at risk for a range of negative outcomes. They are more likely to become disaffected, to alienate others, and to seek to leave the organization. Bored workers are more likely to be sleepy and unable to concentrate on tasks. They are also more likely to act carelessly, less likely to notice or correct errors, and are at greater risk for accidents. Being bored on the job is a function in part of personality, of the characteristics of the job, and of the mismatch between the person and the job. What should be alarming is that boredom is apparently on the rise, and it’s not limited to stereotypically dull jobs. New solutions are necessary.

Assembly line boredom

When most people hear of “boring work”, they think of monotonous assembly lines, people doing the same repetitive motion over and over again for hours. These jobs were the lot of millions of workers through much of the 20th century. They spawned a Human Relations Department movement that sought to “enrich” these jobs by adding elements of variety, purposefulness, autonomy, and decision making capacity to the structure of work where possible. These efforts had mixed success, partly because they tampered with the efficiency that made assembly lines so effective to begin with. Another solution was distraction, allowing workers to listen to music or talk shows so that they could engage their minds while their hands worked away on autopilot.

In principle, much of this concern about workplace boredom should be a thing of the past. Many of these repetitive jobs have ceased to be the employment experience of the American middle or lower class, whether because of increased automation, migration of work to non-Western countries, or by becoming the work of immigrants, both legal and undocumented. Despite this, boredom as a societal problem has not faded.

In fact, there are indications that it has increased. For example, Dr. William Mikulas writes in his 2002 book The Integrative Helper (2002), that “boredom is an epidemic in the United States…when college students in the United States are polled about their concerns and problems, money is on the top of the list and boredom is number two. “A number of surveys indicate that significant numbers of workers are bored with their work and are leaving their jobs or rethinking their careers because of boredom .

Understanding boredom

Most people mistakenly think of boredom as a lack of stimulation. In fact, one can also become bored from being over-stimulated. Difficult material can be more boring than simple information or easy tasks. Boredom is also more than a lack of interest in something. It is a state of being dissatisfied with and distressed about our lack of interest and therefore being irritable, restless, and actively uncomfortable with our present condition. Too little of what we are interested in or too much of what we are not interested in leads to boredom. In contrast to depression, in which people may be despondent and resigned to their disinterest in anything, boredom is often typified by annoyance and the desire to be stimulated.

The New Boredom

The new boredom differs greatly from traditional workplace boredom; it also affects those whose jobs have desirable characteristics.  Current employees are barraged by traditional and social media and are presumed to have shorter and shorter attention spans for presentations, meetings, and even conversations. They are expected to multi-task constantly and are less able to focus deeply on tasks for extended periods. Other related societal changes, including unrealistic expectations about jobs being totally interesting, also lead to frustration. Because of this, even those in professions that have been historically considered interesting are now prone to boredom. The traditional solutions for work-related boredom may be irrelevant for an already over-stimulated workforce.

Solutions for a new age

Clearly, adding more sound and distraction will not help the boredom that comes from over-stimulation. What then might be helpful and what might you do as the manager of a boredom-prone workforce? Although research on what works to combat boredom is sorely lacking, there are some things you can try.

Less distractions. As boredom is often associated with the inability to focus attention, it may help to limit texting or entertainment during work. Boredom may result when one never tries to focus on a single problem, task, or issue exclusively. While realizing that certain generational cohorts have never known a different way of life, it’s not necessarily an improvement to be constantly mentally multitasking.

Streamline meetings: If you haven’t given attention until now to making your company’s meetings less frequent, of shorter duration, and much more focused, perhaps knowing how destructive boredom is will be your motivation. Conversely, learn to lean less on telephone meetings with more than 2-3 participants – the temptation for the boredom-prone to do two or three other things simultaneously can be overwhelming.

Give to others. Wharton professor Adam Grant has shown that helping others in the workplace not only benefits ones career but also makes work more meaningful and engaging. Help employees find ways to get out of their cubicles and do more interdependent work. Reward employees for helping others until they realize the benefits to themselves.

Increase mindfulness. Marion Martin and her colleagues at the University of Brighton in England argue that increasing mindfulness, defined as focused attention to the current moment and acceptance and compassion toward others, could be a useful antidote to the bored person’s inability to concentrate and resultant boredom. Mindfulness can be achieved through meditation or other focused practices advocated by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others experts.

Chronic workplace boredom is a serious problem that is rarely taken seriously.  It is often not acknowledged and can only be deduced from its effect on work performance and relationships. As a manager, you may be in a unique position to help these otherwise capable employees salvage their roles within your organization.


Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers.  Contact at