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Is Workplace Boredom the Biggest Stress Of All?

You'd think having too much on our proverbial work plates would be enough to totally stress us out, but new research tells us that being bored out of our gourds at work can be even worse than being too busy. Hmm. Let's pull ourselves away from our awesome mid-morning daydreams to think about it.

University of Central Lancashire psychology professor Sandi Mann tells us that boredom on the job is second only to anger as the most common emotion at work. Professionally, we're living on a Likert Scale from extremely angry to extremely bored, with the bell curve trending toward extremely bored.

I'm not sure where the margin of error lies in all of this, but Mann believes our jobs are getting more and more boring, thanks to technological advancements, bureaucracy, too many useless meetings, the night shift, and our modern-day, crazy-making tendency toward "self-actualization," e.g., thinking we have so much control over our lives that we can set our career goals incredibly high and on such a strict deadline as to make them virtually unobtainable in the way we've envisioned them. I will be married with kids AND living on a 500-acre estate AND be the CEO of a multinational corporation by age 35 AND be a best-selling author with washboard abs AND everyone will know who I am AND they'll think I'm totally awesome, all the time. Phew. Someone was given way too many undeserved trophies as a kid, or has overbearing parents. Or both.

Anyway, Mann think boredom "is as stressful as stress" and that companies are terrified to admit that their employees might be bored. Companies, however, might want to admit it because employees are busy getting back at them in underhanded and non-productive ways from sabotage, theft, withdrawal and horseplay to abusing everyone and participating in something called "production deviance," otherwise known as failing on purpose, according to separate research conducted at Montclair State University and University of South Florida.

You don't need me to tell you what a productivity drain "production deviance" could be. Plus, the phrase contains the word "deviance," so we know it's bad. When employees are bored, their minds can wander, and not always to good things. Don't let their glassy-eyed stares and all the blatant clock watching give them away, either.

The part of this research that fascinates me most, however, is the sense of "existential boredom" that's apparently plaguing today's service firms. Essentially, "existential boredom" is the feeling that one's work isn't worthwhile because there's nothing real about it. One is simply sending emails, texting, IMing, pushing papers, and talking about everything in the abstract through 12-point type. Zzzzz. There's no there there, nothing tangible, no real product to see or touch or to give us a real and regular sense of accomplishment anymore. Providing "solutions" isn't solving the problem of workplace ennui; in fact, it's making it worse. Go ahead and add employee boredom to the list of reasons why the United States should start manufacturing real products again.

Of course, impatient, tech-obsessed employees need to learn how to manage their downtime, and boredom isn't always bad, especially for today's kids. Boredom, if you know how to harness it, can actually lead to sudden bursts of creativity. I once wrote an entire workplace column about dealing with downtime, a story idea that came to me as I sitting in my home office one day caught up on work and vaguely stressed out because I was bored and couldn't decide how to spend my last hour of work time before the babysitter left. I think many of my best ideas and life decisions have resulted from dawdling in the doldrums. So become one with your boredom. Embrace it. Endure it. Navigate it. Use it to your advantage.

Employers, meanwhile, should constantly ponder new ways to give employees better projects, promotions, training days, in-depth feedback, something to look forward to every day, and a shared sense of purpose that's bigger than themselves. Yes, this will take a lot of work, but on the upside no one will get bored trying to figure it all out.


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