Being chronically bored at work can have damaging consequences – and we need to talk about it more, say experts.
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.
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.
"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”.
Ruth Stock-Homburg, a professor of 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.
"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. 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”.
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.
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.
“Boreout can mark a transition into something else: a different career entirely, or a different role in the organisation,” Harju says. “If people only take its cue.”