Autonomy and intrinsic motivation spur productivity and creativity in workplaces where time is flexible and relationships good.
We all know that high stress in the workplace can lead to burnout. But less attention is given to long periods of intense boredom, sometimes referred to as ‘rust out‘ or ‘bore out‘. This typically comes with feelings of weariness, distraction and a lack of motivation, alongside the perception of time slowing down. Despite this, it’s a problem many managers and organisations ignore.
If burnout is the result of overly high demand at work, then rust out is caused by overly low demand or stimulation. When employees are bored and disengaged for extended periods, they may experience frustration and lethargy, lower psychological wellbeing and reduced job satisfaction.
They may also feel unfocused, like they don’t have a set goal or task. This state is in direct opposition to ‘flow’—a sort of hyperfocus which occurs when one’s skills are perfectly challenged (so a task isn’t too easy or too hard). This is when it feels fulfilling to complete a task.
Boredom is associated with reduced productivity and creativity, and more counterproductive work practices—including distraction, substance use and absenteeism—just as with burnout. Clearly, this is bad for the individual and workplace alike.
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Employees tend to become bored when their work is uninspiring and does not stretch their skills or abilities. Increasing education means the skills of employees now often exceed the requirements of their jobs. And in precarious times, such as the current cost-of-living crisis, people are more likely to accept jobs for which they are overqualified, exacerbating the possibilities for workplace boredom.
Increasing use of technology may have also induced a reduced sense of purpose or fulfilment. Industrialisation and the introduction of the computer have clearly had a legion of advantages. But on the flip side, we are now further removed from the physical creation of products, leading to feelings of alienation.
The pandemic has not helped either. During the lockdowns, and in the face of increased awareness of mortality, people used their time to examine what they really value in life. This in turn has led to a wave of quiet quitting, in which employees only do the bare minimum of what’s required at work. But quiet quitting can be counterproductive, because it often boosts boredom and leaves people without a sense of purpose or motivation.
In opposition to being bored, the state of flow fulfils three factors some researchers suggest are the most important for workplace wellbeing: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the sense of control and freedom employees feel when they have the power to make decisions about how they work and what they work on. Mastery is the progress and growth they experience when they feel they are improving, developing new skills and conquering new challenges. And purpose is the meaning and impact employees experience when they feel their work is contributing to something larger than themselves and has a positive impact on the world.
What is common to these three factors is they contribute to work feeling ‘right’—providing a sense of satisfaction, fulfilment or purpose. The absence of these three pillars leads to a strong reduction in motivation and ultimately disengagement from work.
Another factor is motivation, which can typically be divided into two types. Extrinsic motivation encourages one to do something because there is an external reward, whether monetary or even just praise. Intrinsic motivation helps one stay motivated to keep doing something simply because one wants to—it brings joy.
The absence of intrinsic motivation leads particularly to boredom. It is a state where even extrinsic reward generally cannot bring back focus and engagement.
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How might we fight workplace boredom? Some considerations have to be addressed but a four-day week and general flexible working tick many of the boxes. These give employees autonomy, providing time to master new skills and seek out creative endeavours that give a sense of purpose. Together, this is a solid basis to support intrinsic motivation.
Happy workers are not just productive workers, however—they are also more creative. If companies suffers from large groups of bored employees, as some reports have suggested, then they miss out on important innovations and consequent growth. Organisations that prioritise circumstances that encourage creativity—a positive work environment and good manager-employee relationships, for example—have higher productivity, competitiveness and overall performance, through fostering innovation, problem-solving and adaptability.
For employees to be creative and innovative, they need to have time to engage in different tasks. Through their so-called Fedex days, Atlassian, an Australian software company, did just that: employees were able to do whatever they wanted for a day. Google and other companies have implemented a similar strategy called the 20 per cent rule, where employees are encouraged to spend up to one fifth of their paid work time pursuing personal projects.
Positive and supported
Employees also need to feel positive and supported. A lack of energy or performance anxiety can get in the way of this.
Boredom means that the current work situation does not present a challenge suitable for employees’ skills, so they will not experience a flow state, or satisfaction or fulfilment. Flow states can be very important for inducing creativity.
Most people will experience boredom once in a while at work. But as long as it doesn’t become all-consuming, it can even be rewarding. That’s because occasional boredom can divert our attention in directions where it might not normally go, or let our brain wander. This may ultimately lead to creative ideas and solutions.
Valerie van Mulukom is an assistant professor at Coventry University and a research associate at the University of Oxford. Her research centres on the cognitive and evolutionary science of belief, imagination and social bonding, and uses methods from experimental, social and evolutionary psychology.