We all know what burnout is and why it’s bad. But fewer of us have heard of ‘boreout’ – a related phenomenon that’s arguably just as pernicious.
While burnout is linked to long hours, poor work-life balance and our glamourisation of overwork, boreout happens when we are bored by our work to the point that we feel it is totally meaningless. Our job seems pointless, our tasks devoid of value.
Boreout doesn’t get as much attention as its workaholic cousin, but experts say that this phenomenon – which occurs across industries – can result in some of the same health problems for workers. It’s also bad for companies, because a workforce with boreout can lead to high staff turnover.
Knowing what boreout is, and being able to identify it in ourselves, is critical for tackling it. There are also actions both workers and companies can take to alleviate it. And experts suggest that as we emerge into an evolving new world of work that prioritises worker wellbeing, boreout could merit just as much attention as other workplace problems.
What is boreout?
“Boreout is chronic boredom. That sums it up,” says Lotta Harju, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at EM Lyon Business School, France, who has studied boreout for years.
A number of factors can cause chronic boredom, including working in a demoralising physical environment like a cubicle farm, or feeling under-challenged over a prolonged period. But Harju says the fundamental experience of boreout is meaninglessness – “the experience that the work doesn’t really have any purpose, that there’s no point”.
Boreout, or chronic boredom at work, can lead to cyberloafing and slacking, but also job dissatisfaction and poorer mental health (Credit: Getty)
Ruth Stock-Homburg, a professor of management and human resources management at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, says she’s witnessed the phenomenon across multiple industries. “I started observing people in quiet hours in retail stores, and people are just standing there bored. Or taxi drivers that have to wait sometimes for hours in quiet times in the countryside.” Tech workers in Silicon Valley have also told her they feel the same way, she says.
Stock-Homburg and her colleagues have identified three main aspects of the boreout phenomenon: “being terribly bored, having a crisis of growth and having a crisis of meaning”.
Although it’s normal for everyone to get bored at work occasionally, being chronically bored for days on end may indicate that you need to address the issue, says Harju, because failing to do so can have consequences. In 2014, she worked on a study, looking at more than 11,000 workers at 87 Finnish organisations. She found that chronic boredom “increased the likelihood of employees’ turnover and early retirement intentions, poor self-rated health and stress symptoms”.
Other research backs this up. A 2021 study showed that 186 government workers in Turkey who suffered from boreout also dealt with depression, and high rates of stress and anxiety. Studies show depression from boreout can follow workers outside the office, and lead to physical ailments from insomnia to headaches.
Can you fix it?
Tackling boreout can be tricky, however, because generally by the time you recognise it, you’ve been chronically bored for a while.
“Boreout is different from burnout in the sense that bored-out employees rarely collapse out of exhaustion. Bored-out people may be present physically but not in spirit, and people can keep doing this for a good while,” says Harju.
Workers who realise they’re experiencing boreout may also be reluctant to flag it up as an issue to line managers or human resources. While the behaviours that feed into burnout – overwork, drive – are appreciated and rewarded by employers, boreout “reflects a lack of interest, a lack of motivation”, says Harju. “These are very much taboo in organisations.”
There are some quick fixes, like taking on work tasks that are more interesting to you. “To improve would require finding some purpose or inspiration in what one is doing,” she says. And people are more likely to be able to rediscover enthusiasm for their work if they had it in the first place. But a 2016 study Harju and her colleagues worked on showed that people who had boreout were less likely to engage in constructive activities like trying to find new, interesting challenges at work.
What happens more often, she says, is that people will just show up at their desks and spend time shopping online, cyberloafing, chatting with colleagues or planning other activities. She says that these people aren’t lazy, but are using these behaviours as “coping mechanisms”.
We need a shift in thinking about employee wellbeing merely in terms of stress and burnout – Lotta Harju
Fahri Özsungur, an associate professor of economics at Mersin University, Turkey, who was behind the 2021 study on the health effects of boreout, points out that combatting the phenomenon isn’t just down to the individual.
“Giving meaning to the job is not just up to the employee,” he says, instead it’s up to management to create an office culture that makes people feel valuable. “Make minor changes to the job or tasks. Whatever makes work boring, make it enjoyable.” Organisations need to learn what boreout is, he says, and have resources available.
That said, some jobs are inherently unstimulating. But “even though the work itself would not be all that exciting, other aspects of work, such as having good relationships at the workplace or feeling appreciated by the employer, can to some extent compensate for and bring meaning to tedious work,” says Harju. There are many ways, she says, to make workers “feel like the time they spend at work is noticed, appreciated and worthwhile”.
Preventing boreout in workers, says Harju, can boil down to “plain old good leadership”, whereby leaders take time to communicate to workers why what they’re doing is valued and valuable, like career development schemes.
Many of us are aware of what burnout is, but not so much with boreout, which can be just as damaging to your health and your career (Credit: Getty)
‘Bring boreout into the discussion’
Focusing on boreout right now might be particularly useful, given that since the pandemic hit, people have been re-evaluating their employment choices for a variety of reasons. It’s clear Covid-19 has provided an opportunity for some people to reassess whether they find what they are doing meaningful.
Of course, finding your job so dull that you want to leave isn’t new to the pandemic era. It’s been a problem since the industrial age when people worked in factories. But today, Harju points out, there is also a “stronger cultural norm” suggesting that we should be fulfilled and interested at work. “It is what people want and expect, how many a job is marketed and what heaps of books and tweets by consultants talk about.”
As we try to reshape the workplace based on what we’ve learned and felt during the pandemic, experts say that we need to make boreout part of the conversation – the same way we’re increasing discussions around burnout, presenteeism, work-life balance, remote work and workplace inequalities.
“We need a shift in thinking about employee wellbeing merely in terms of stress and burnout,” says Harju. “I do not mean that these are not important issues, but rather that they do not sufficiently represent the spectrum of human suffering at work. Bringing boreout into this discussion could thus broaden our understanding on what makes a good work life.”
Harju describes boreout as “kind of a signature syndrome” of the pandemic; our ennui fueled by too much time in Zoom meetings, surrounded by the same four walls. “My hope is that these boreout-related trends will force some organisations to re-think their human resource philosophies and policies, and organise work in a more sustainable way in general in the post-pandemic era.”
If you think boreout is seriously affecting your health (either physical or mental), it may be valuable to ask yourself how you might be able to repoint your career path toward something healthier for you. Seek the advice of mentors, career counsellors or friends and family.
“I do not know whether there is a better way [to figure out what works for you] than trial and error,” says Harju. “People learn different skills, gain perspective, venture out and start businesses. Boreout can mark a transition into something else: a different career entirely, or a different role in the organisation,” she says. “If people only take its cue.”