Boredom is a job killer and why we need an “interest” stimulus

Boredom is not only a joy killer. It’s a job killer. But when we think about why people leave jobs, we often focus on stress, not boredom. Here’s why we need an ‘interest’ stimulus.

April 29, 2021 5 mins read

After a billion shots worldwide have been administered, many of us are starting to re-emerge into the world. Whilst the pandemic has been rampaging through the world (and sadly is still in many parts), there has been another more silent epidemic lurking – boredom. 

Languishing is what some call it. It’s not burnout (though some are suffering from it), and it’s not depression. It’s a sort of joyless, aimless muddling through days. When we’re bored, we have a sense of emptiness and everything being the same and uninteresting. Maybe that sounds familiar to you? 

Psychologically speaking, boredom is the opposite of interest. While it doesn’t quite capture people’s attention like stress, boredom is not only a joy killer; it is also a job killer. 

Loads of businesses, and especially public sector organizations, perform stress audits, yet have you ever heard of one doing a boredom audit? It might sound weird, but it would make much more business sense. Bored employees are not only underperforming (they’d have to be to be bored), but they are also much more of a flight risk – not only are they unhappy, but they also have the time to look for a new job!

So, as we start to emerge from this prolonged period of enforced boredom where we have been missing our normal stimulating lives, it is a time of great opportunity and jeopardy for the future of work. The opportunity is that we all recognize that our work lives are a source of great stimulation for us. It is a potential area in our lives that is both challenging and rewarding. It can give us a sense of purpose as we make a contribution in the world. The danger is that we may see our work as merely a means to an end and never bring our best selves to work. Instead, we might exclusively seek to find other avenues outside our work for stimulation.

Whilst stress and boredom are both sources of unhappiness in our lives, they are not equal. Everyday boredom is much more corrosive than everyday stress. This is not to say that being over-stressed (especially for prolonged periods) doesn’t have serious consequences such as burnout – it’s just that moderate stress doesn’t. 

But even mild boredom has negative work consequences.

At Friday Pulse, we believe in making the science, not just referencing it, and we see these differences in our data about happiness at work. Using a data set of 24,000 respondents in research that we conducted with our friends at Robert Half, we can examine the impact of boredom and stress on employee wellbeing.  

Here’s what we found. 

Happiness, Boredom and Stress

Odds are, if you’re bored, you’re unhappy. On the other hand, whilst stress is often seen as the oppositive of happiness, it’s not a foregone conclusion. The graph below shows when people find their jobs uninteresting, they are rarely happy (only 9%), whereas even when “very stressed”, 38% of people still report they’re happy at work. 

This pattern also holds for other key indicators such as:

  • Flight risk: those who find their work boring are 4x more likely to leave than those who are stressed (44% vs 11%)
  • Innovation: interested workers express their creativity 4x more than bored colleagues (58% vs 14%), whereas even when highly stressed, 37% still feel creative
  • Productivity: only 29% of bored workers feel a sense of accomplishment about their work (a soft measure of productivity) compared to 85% for their interested colleagues. 61% of stressed workers still feel productive.

With all of this evidence, why do people talk about stress more than boredom? We all have a bias towards negative emotions and stress is largely seen as an unpleasant, negative emotion. It usually comes with fires that need to be put out, and there’s an immediacy to it. But comparing stress and interest is a bit like comparing apples and oranges — they’re not strongly correlated with each other. However, both are key parts of happiness. If one were to make a formula, then it would roughly be:

Happiness at work=(3× Interest)-(1 × Stress)

It’s unrealistic to have a successful and happy job without stress. There has to be some stress to drive forward innovation and creativity. Without it, boredom will set in, and in the long run, that’s significantly worse for both employees’ happiness and key business outcomes. 

Flow: the antidote to boredom

There has been little escape from boredom in the time of COVID, but it is beatable. The famous Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the idea of “flow” in the 1970s. It’s that wonderful feeling we have when we get so absorbed in something that we lose track of time. His and other people’s research has shown that it happens when the challenges we face are well-matched to our skill levels. 

Flow is almost like a peak experience when it comes to “interest”. Tennis players get into the zone. Musicians get lost in the music. Statisticians like me get immersed in excel spreadsheets!

The diagram below identifies the “flow zone” and the relationship between boredom and stress. 

Our research at Friday Pulse highlights that the costs of being bored at work far outweigh the costs of being over-challenged. Low stress is undoubtedly optimal, but it’s much better to push ourselves (and our teams) than to go too easy.

Beating back the boredom blues 

Boredom is a signal to explore novelty, to do something different. Unfortunately, that’s sometimes difficult to do within the rigid structure of work. So, how do we make work more interesting in the middle of a pandemic? Here are some suggestions: 

Talk about interest

If you’re conducting one-to-one meetings with your people, consider asking them what they find most interesting about their jobs. We often don’t talk about interest at work, yet interest is related to our long-term development — it’s about our passion and a sense of purpose. 

Find new things to do

Job variety is important. People have been doing a lot of the same things since the beginning of COVID. While there may be a desire to return to how things were pre-COVID, be bold and try new things. This could be adopting a hybrid work schedule or even mixing with people you don’t typically engage with. The variety will bring new interest to the job. 

Challenge and Empower

Two of The Five Ways to Happiness at Work – Challenge and Empower – are key components of interest. Employees that are empowered to work with their strengths will find work more interesting. Likewise, work that is challenging (but not impossibly so) makes things better. 

Ultimately, post-pandemic growth is going to be driven by interest — especially as we’ve all had some time to evaluate what matters to us. We’ve all had to deal with COVID trauma, and the way to move forward is to find interesting things in our work.

How I can help

If you’re struggling to figure out if your people are interested and engaged in the work they do, Friday Pulse can help. By measuring and monitoring weekly happiness scores, we help you get a pulse on what is going on in your company, so you know who needs more of a challenge. Reach out to us today and let us help you and your organization.