Under-stimulated and uninspired at work? Boredom can be just as harmful as burnout

Boredom can be just as harmful as burnout

Under-stimulated and uninspired at work

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index found that globally, 40% of people were looking to leave their employer in 2021, and currently in 2023 in the UK sick leave is at an all-time high. Yet Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive for Public Health England (2018) said ‘Having a job is good for our health’; and Waddell & Burton (2006) of the Department for Work and Pensions collated a series of essays under the title ‘Is Work Good for you: Health and Wellbeing’ finding that “…work is generally good for physical and mental health and wellbeing… worklessness is associated with poorer physical and mental health. Work can be therapeutic…”

How is it that a potentially virtuous circle can be such a vicious one – and what can we do about it? Here are three things to consider:

Burnout is not the only problem

We all know the feeling when we’ve eaten too much and feel bloated and uncomfortable, but how often do we remember the feeling when we’ve not eaten enough we’ve had to squirm, subtly, to stop our tummy rumbling through a meeting?

To borrow a model from trauma research to illustrate this concept of workplace motivation – or lack thereof, Dan Siegel described the state of optimal arousal that a person can function within as the ‘window of tolerance’. For Siegel, too much would lead to hyper arousal (eg. stress, anxiety), too little to hypo arousal (eg. depression and apathy). Something which Paula Coles called Rust Out.

Paula Coles (2019) used ‘Rust Out’ to describe the feeling that employees experience when they do “Work which is uninspiring and fails to stretch the person, so that they become disinterested, apathetic and alienated.” It is further notable that where burnout may implicate systemic problems as contributing to the cause, rust out points the finger more directly.

Why does something get rusty? Because it is left to rust by careless owners!

While burnout is active – eg. trying to do more than is possible until there is no energy left – a rusty object doesn’t necessarily choose to rust, and as such, while there is a place for individual as well as systemic changes to address burnout, when it comes to rust out the role of the leader and the organisation is clear.

Has “passion” run out?

Benjamin Todd said ’Follow your passion’ …is no help…many successful people are passionate, but often their passion developed alongside their success, rather than coming first.’

In fact, ask yourself: Is your passion the same as it was 5 or 10 years ago? What did you want to be when you ‘grew up’?

Often, we find that not only do passions change, but every job has aspects which we really like, and some which we don’t. You may wish to ask your teams if their own personal journey is still in alignment with that of the organisation which might give you – and they – a helpful starting point to make changes. Perhaps they can enjoy a secondment; or training; or even explore opportunities which they may not have considered when they first joined.

Has your team focused on their skills over their strengths?

Professionals are good at a number of things because they are quick to learn. However, this can also mean they can become misled.

Try this yourself – consider all the things you are good at – and then divide them into two columns – which things you actually really enjoy and find energising, and which things you can do, but find exhausting. And you have the strengths v skills dilemma outlined.

Both these abilities can be learned, developed and improved, but one set makes us feel great when we engage in them, the other does not. If you are unaware of the difference, it is very easy to become very good, and get promoted in a role which doesn’t suit you authentically until you get to the point where you’re at the top of your game (so powerful is the dopamine hit of praise) but don’t want to be there. Recognising the difference between the two and focusing on strengths can make a huge difference not just to career path, but overall wellbeing along the way.

Dr Audrey Tang
Dr Audrey Tang

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