Boredom at Work

Feeling bored at work is a common complaint; a large percentage of employees feel bored at least occasionally and some feel bored much of the time. Boredom has not been studied extensively, but it has attracted some attention from scholars in diverse disciplines including human factors engineering, psychiatry, sociology, education, criminology, and industrial psychology.

Definitions of Boredom

Most scholars would agree that boredom is an emotion. It is an unpleasant transient state in which individuals feel an extreme lack of interest in their current activity. Bored individuals find it difficult to keep their attention focused on work and may feel that time is passing very slowly. Boredom is usually accompanied by feelings of restlessness, irritability, and desire to escape or change the situation to a more interesting activity. Boredom has been described as the opposite of enthusiasm or flow.

Boredom is also sometimes conceptualized as a personality trait, and some individuals are more likely to experience boredom than others. Scores on the boredom proneness scale are related to measures of state boredom, impulsiveness, sensation seeking, depression, negative affect, aggression, hostility, self-reported physical and psychological symptoms, and job dissatisfaction. The remainder of this entry will focus on boredom as a transient state experienced while working.

Consequences and Causes of Boredom at Work

The consequences of boredom are thought to be largely negative. Boredom at work has been associated with absence, dissatisfaction, accidents, reduced performance on vigilance tasks, performance variability, horseplay, and sabotage. However, it has been suggested that boredom has the potential to stimulate creativity and organizational citizenship behaviors in some cases.

There are many likely causes of boredom at work. These include aspects of work tasks, aspects of the surrounding work environment, and interactions of the task and performer.

Work Tasks

As an emotion, boredom depends on an appraisal of a situation by the performer. Thus boredom does not automatically reside in characteristics of work tasks but in how these tasks are appraised by the individual performing them. Nevertheless, there are types of tasks that are likely experienced as boring by most people. What makes a task seem boring is at least partly the opposite of what makes it interesting or intrinsically motivating. Simple, repetitive tasks that require little thought or judgment, such as some assembly line tasks, are likely to be experienced as boring. Once learned, these tasks require little conscious attention, provide little mental stimulation, and may prohibit incumbents from engaging in other forms of self-entertainment while working.

Another type of work that is often experienced as boring includes vigilance, inspection, checking, and driving tasks. These tasks require sustained and careful attention. However, they provide little variety or stimulation in return. This makes it difficult to sustain attention and perform with high reliability over long periods of time.

A final category of work situation that is described as boring is having nothing to do. Some jobs do not contain enough tasks to keep incumbents occupied for the time they are required to remain at work. Other jobs are dependent on intermittent or less than completely predictable demand for services, such as checkout or help desk staff. When demand is low, there may be little to do but wait around in readiness to provide a service.

Work Environment

Compulsion and interruptions can also contribute to feelings of boredom while working, regardless of characteristics of the main work task. Individuals report feeling bored when they are compelled to perform tasks in set ways, in set places, and at set times. Lack of self-direction, autonomy, and personal causality are known to undermine intrinsic interest in work tasks.

Individuals may infer that they are bored when they experience problems holding their attention on a work task. Some research has suggested that low-level distractions and interruptions in the workplace can make maintaining attentional focus difficult, thus contributing to the experience of boredom. Interruptions can also stem from internal sources. Personal concerns may produce intrusive thoughts that distract an incumbent from a work task so it appears uninteresting.

Interactions of Task and Performer

Some authors attribute boredom largely to lack of personal meaning in an activity. Individuals are bored when they perform a task that lacks relevance for them. Simple repetitive tasks often fit this description, as might any required task when something else is more important or has greater meaning to the performer at that moment. Individuals are also bored when tasks are too difficult for their skills. Tasks may be varied and complex, but the performer lacks the expertise to extract meaning from the complexity. An example is listening to a lecture that is too advanced for a person’s level of understanding.

Reducing Boredom

Both individuals and organizations may act to reduce boredom. Bored employees adopt a number of strategies to alleviate their unpleasant feelings. Sometimes it is possible to force attention on to the task and eventually become absorbed in it. Another option is to engage in subsidiary behaviors to provide additional stimulation while performing the boring task. For example, a worker may fidget, talk to others, daydream, listen to music, or invent varied ways to execute the task. If the task does not require full attention, these strategies may reduce boredom without compromising performance. Performance on vigilance tasks, however, will often suffer when subsidiary behaviors are performed. Alternatively, individuals may escape or avoid boring situations altogether by finding different work or nonwork tasks to do: engaging in counterproductive work behaviors such as horseplay or sabotage, taking breaks, being absent, or quitting the job.

Organizations may adopt job rotation or job enrichment and redesign to increase the variety and challenge in employees’ tasks and thus reduce boredom. Frequent feedback, goal setting, and performance-contingent pay can make simple tasks more meaningful and therefore less boring. Although there is no research evidence yet, team-based work systems also might reduce boredom. Allowing social contact between workers and permitting other forms of concurrent self-entertainment can help reduce boredom on simple repetitive tasks. Because boredom occurs when skills are either too high or too low for task demands, creating an appropriate match between demands and skills through selection, training, and job design should minimize boredom.

References:

  1. Barbalet, J. M. (1999). Boredom and social meaning. British Journal of Sociology, 50, 631-646.
  2. Conrad, P. (1997). It’s boring: Notes on the meanings of boredom in everyday life. Qualitative Sociology, 20, 465-475.
  3. Damrad-Frye, R., & Laird, J. D. (1989). The experience of boredom: The role of self-perception of attention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 315-320.
  4. Farmer, R., & Sundberg, N. D. (1986). Boredom proneness: The development and correlates of a new scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 50, 4-17.
  5. Fisher, C. D. (1993). Boredom at work: A neglected concept. Human Relations, 46, 395-417.
  6. Fisher, C. D. (1998). Effects of external and internal interruptions on boredom at work: Two studies. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 19, 503-522.
  7. Smith, R. P. (1981). Boredom: A review. Human Factors, 23, 329-340.
  8. Vodanovich, S. J. (2003). Psychometric measures of boredom: A review of the literature. The Journal of Psychology, 137, 569-595.

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