Updated: May 11, 2020
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
I was in a zoom chat with some friends recently, and friend number 1 commented on how bored they were in their work. “Lucky you!” said my friend number 2 “I wish I had time to be bored!”.
Boredom at work sounds harmless and even like a luxury. But, boredom is a highly aversive mental state that can be distressing and dissatisfying. I could see friend number 1’s face when friend number 2 said she was lucky, and what I saw flick across her face was sadness and frustration.
When you are working and not experiencing meaning or not using your skills or doing the same thing over and over, time can seem to stretch out for ever.
Research shows, if you experience chronic boredom, you will be more likely to skip work, leave your job, have an accident, use drugs and alcohol to an excess, and even ‘misbehave’ at work by engaging in ‘counterproductive work behaviors (such as stealing or cheating) (Schaufeli & Salanova, 2014).
You can check your own work-related boredom using the quiz at the bottom of the page.
Why do people get bored at work?
People experience boredom for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes there is simply not enough tasks to do; a situation referred to as ‘quantitative underload’ (Fisherl, 1993).
Boredom also occurs when the work is repetitive and monotonous, lacks variety, and doesn’t use your skills or – in a nutshell - is not stimulating, which is the “S” in the SMART work design model. A non-stimulating job is referred to as having ‘qualitative underload’.
As an example, long haul pilots sometimes experience boredom because they mostly watch over the ‘autopilot’ with very little need for human intervention, and they need to engage in this vigilance task over long periods of time (Grose, 1988). Another example is a person who is overqualified for the job – such a person might experience boredom because s/he has more qualifications and skill than is used on the job (Liu & Wang, 2012).
Right now, both quantitative and qualitative underload might occur for you because some of your projects are on hold due to COVID-19, or perhaps because you are working at home and so can't complete some of your more interesting tasks.
In fact, boredom can actually also occur when you are chronically overloaded – constantly managing meeting after meeting, endless paper work, information overload, and the like, can get dull, after a time, partly because your work begins to lose meaning. I’ll talk about this sort of boredom in a later blog; here I will focus on boredom arising from underload.
What can I do to be less bored?
If you are experiencing significant levels of boredom in your work, what can you do?
Well, it is not a good time to quit your job, which might be one recommendation if you have a job that is chronically boring and holding you back.
Cyberloafing is another frequent response that researchers have shown occurs when people are bored at work (Pindek et al., 2018). But cyberloafing is not a response that is going to help you be productive and hence support the economy.
So what to do?
Crafting your job as a solution
People self-initiate changes to their jobs to increase the fit between their job and their skills, abilities, and interests, which is referred to as “job crafting”. This concept was introduced in the USA by Professors’ Amy Wriznieski from and Jane Dutton (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001), and has since been investigated by many scholars around the world (including scholars in the Centre for Transformative Work Design (Zhang & Parker, 2019).
Studies show that people who engage in crafting are more engaged in their work and less bored, and also experience a number of other benefits such as improved performance (Zhang & Parker, 2019).
How do I craft my job to make my work more stimulating?
Here I will focus on the three most relevant to boredom.
1. Increase ‘structural job resources’, or those aspects of your job that help you achieve your work and career goals, such as having opportunities for development and having a high level of job autonomy. Example actions you can task:
Negotiate more decision-making autonomy from your boss
Ask to be allowed more control over your work hours
Learn new skills that will be helpful when the pandemic ends (eg. to cope with digitalization in the future)
Ask a colleague to teach you something new
Learn something you’ve always wanted to learn
I saw a nice example of this sort of crafting recently, in which an allied health professional (who wasn’t able to do her work fully from home so was a bit bored) took the opportunity to learn Auslan. She knew this would be a helpful skill when her work returns back to normal.
2. Increase the challenging aspects of your work, or those aspects of your job that will increase how stimulating your work is. Examples of such crafting include:
Take on extra tasks that suit your skills or interests
Give more emphasis to work tasks that suit your skills or interests
Offer help to colleagues
Ask to get involved in a new project
Go above and beyond the call of duty to help customers and clients
Develop a new and improved way of doing things
Improve your work systems (e.g., automate the boring tasks)
Expand tasks you are exceptionally good at or have a strength in
A study of 1630 Finnish employees showed that if you seek out new challenges in your work, this reduces boredom and increases work engagement (Harju et al., 2016).
3. Increase social resources, or the relationships and networks in your job. Example ways to craft your social resources include:
Ask for feedback from your supervisor
Build new relationships
Organize special events in the workplace
Arrange a virtual morning tea
Choose to mentor some employees
Gather feedback from your clients
Talk to people about how they do their work
Ask for advice
Once I was about to do a talk on job crafting. I was being filmed, so a make up artist did my makeup before the talk. She told me about how, one of the ways she had made her job more interesting, was to volunteer to work with transgender people. This new work and new relationships then led to all sorts of interesting opportunities for her work, and increased the sense of meaning she felt in her work. I thought this was a great example of job that I as then able to share with the audience.
4. Cognitively craft your job, that is, reframe how you think about your work or change your mindset. For example:
Consider how your work positively impacts others’ lives
Think about how your work affects the broader community
Remind yourself about the importance your work has for the success of your company or team
One study (Dutton et al., 2000) showed that hospital cleaners crafted their job in very different ways. Whereas one group of cleaners disliked cleaning and tried to keep their tasks and interactions to a minimum, cleaners in a second group saw themselves not just as ‘cleaners’ but as ‘healers’. As a consequence of this cognitive crafting, they engaged in behaviors such as talking to patients and showing visitors around, which improved the meaning of their work and increased the smooth running of the hospital.
Get ideas for crafting your job by talking to others
If you are short on ideas, try talking to your supervisor and/or your colleagues. Let them know you are looking for more variety in your work, or that you have some un-used skills you are keen to use.
Sometimes addressing boredom through crafting might require support or authority from others. For example, in our team, some of our operations team have less to do because – for example – we’re no longer running events, or organising travel. So we’ve made a decision to keep tasks in house that normally we might outsource, such as copy editing, transcribing, and website development. This means the operations team have the chance to do some different tasks and learn new skills.
Also talk to others who do similar work to you – what are they doing to make their work more stimulating and to give it more meaning?
Being bored in your work isn’t “lucky”. Its a corrosive mental state, and it can eat away at you and your well-being.
If you’re bored today at work, identify one action from the list in the blog and implement it.
Let me know if it makes a difference.
Quiz: Check Your Job Boredom
If you agree with one or more of these items, boredom is likely to be a problem for you.
At work, time goes by very slowly
At my job, I feel restless
It seem as if my working day never ends
During work time, I day dream
[Based on the Dutch Boredom Scale, Reijseger et al., 2013]
Resources and links
Job crafting: https://positivepsychology.com/job-crafting/
More on the importance of job crafting: https://positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/What-is-Job-Crafting-and-Why-Does-it-Matter1.pdf
Watch this YouTube video by Rob Baker here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dd3RpD5FrU
Watch this YouTube video by Amy Wrzesniewski here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_igfnctYjA
References Dutton, J. E., Debebe, G., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2000). A social valuing perspective on relationship sensemaking. Ann Arbor.(Working paper).
Fisherl, C. D. (1993). Boredom at Work: A Neglected Concept. Human Relations, 46(3), 395-417. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872679304600305
Grose, V. L. (1988). Coping with boredom in the cockpit before it's too late. Risk Management, 35(8). https://search.proquest.com/docview/226994185?pq-origsite=gscholar
Harju, L. K., Hakanen, J. J., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2016). Can job crafting reduce job boredom and increase work engagement? A three-year cross-lagged panel study. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 95-96, 11-20. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2016.07.001
Liu, S., & Wang, M. (2012). Perceived Overqualification: A Review and Recommendations for Research and Practice. In L. P. Pamela, R. B. H. Jonathon, & C. R. Christopher (Eds.), The Role of the Economic Crisis on Occupational Stress and Well Being (Vol. 10, pp. 1-42). Emerald Group Publishing Limited. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1479-3555(2012)0000010005
Pindek, S., Krajcevska, A., & Spector, P. E. (2018). Cyberloafing as a coping mechanism: Dealing with workplace boredom. Computers in Human Behavior, 86, 147-152. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.04.040
Reijseger, G., Schaufeli, W. B., Peeters, M. C. W., Taris, T. W., van Beek, I., & Ouweneel, E. (2013). Watching the paint dry at work: psychometric examination of the Dutch Boredom Scale. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 26(5), 508-525. https://doi.org/10.1080/10615806.2012.720676
Schaufeli, W., & Salanova, M. (2014). Burnout, boredom and engagement at the workplace. In M. C. W. Peeters, J. d. Jonge, & T. W. Taris (Eds.), An Introduction to Contemporary Work Psychology. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Tims, M., Bakker, A. B., & Derks, D. (2012). Development and validation of the job crafting scale. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 80(1), 173-186. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2011.05.009
Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179-201. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2001.4378011
Zhang, F., & Parker, S. K. (2019). Reorienting job crafting research: A hierarchical structure of job crafting concepts and integrative review. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40(2), 126-146. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2332