A Little-Known Cause of Burnout
Why boredom and burnout are correlated.
Posted September 1, 2017
In 1957, McGill University psychology professor Donald Hebb paid college students to lie on a bed in a room the size of a cubicle day and night. They wore fogged glasses, cotton gloves, and a U-shaped pillow around their heads to muffle sounds.
The subjects intended to study. (Today’s students aren’t the only ones with unrealistic expectations!) Instead, they became restless, distractible, and irritable. Nearly all of them reported an inability to think clearly for any length of time. One participant explained that "something seemed to be sucking my mind out through my eyes." Indeed, the subjects’ performance on simple cognitive tests was worse than a control group’s.
Hebb planned for the experiment to run six weeks, but no one lasted longer than a week.
Sustained boredom, Hebb found, is bad for us. Modern psychology agrees: When we’re bored, sums a recent study, our judgment, goal-directed planning, risk assessment, focus, and control over our emotions suffer.
Fortunately, these days we have plenty to do to keep us sharp and engaged. Or do we? Americans are working longer hours than any time in the last century: 36 percent of millennials say their stress has increased in the past year, and more than half have lain awake at night from stress in the last month.
Yet many of us are also, simultaneously, bored. Gallup found that only 29 percent of millennials are engaged at work. The University of Kent found that recent graduates rated their administrative, sales, and marketing positions—where most land after college—as 7.7 or above out of 10 on boredom.
How can we be both bored and stressed?
It turns out that boredom and burnout are correlated. We see burnout as the result of doing too much and boredom as the result of doing too little. In fact, neither state is related to quantity of activities so much as what we’re doing. Boredom stems from uniform, repetitive tasks. No matter how many emails we have to answer, we’ll be bored if all of our tasks feel similar.
The rise of the knowledge sector should theoretically cut boredom. But it may have just changed the medium of monotony from heavy machinery to digital technology. Sociologist Orrin Klapp argued that our information society has become boring “in spite of itself”: Information inundation has compromised meaning, while redundancy and noise have replaced resonance and variety. Anyone who’s worked in online media or Excel can attest to this.
We habituate to the modern workforce’s high-intensity, but predictable tasks. Because the stimuli don’t change, we cease to be stimulated. The consequence is two-fold: First, like a kind of Chinese water torture, each identical thing becomes increasingly painful. In defense, we become decreasingly engaged.
Second, work feels harder. Hebb’s bored students quickly reported that “it took too much effort to concentrate," so they let their minds drift catatonically. For bored employees, the high alertness necessitated by today’s workplaces is an excruciating effort. As one study explains, “Positive activities are unlikely to emerge from passive, low-arousal states.”
The high expectations of the information sector aren’t going anywhere, so it’s up to us to find ways to vary our days and practice our brains. Here are five:
One study summarized that learning is both the opposite of and the antidote to boredom. Learning something new on the job is ideal, but if that’s not possible there are other hours in the day.
For the last few years, on and off, I’ve read in the mornings before work. Even if my workday is dull, I feel excited and satisfied by my “findings.” Pick up a new hobby, study a new subject—you know the drill.
2. Don’t retaliate.
Another study found that as high school students’ indignation at their inadequate education increased, so did their boredom. Students felt that “the honorable action in response to an inappropriate curriculum was to disengage from it and quit producing.” Of course, this just hurt the students.
Besides, disengaging as a (cowardly) form of middle finger will hurt you. If you feel angry about your boring job, get out of it or change it before you get to the “screw you, I don’t care anymore” stage.
3. Chase the challenge sweet spot.
Boredom isn’t just induced by being under-challenged. It’s also caused by too much challenge. The right amount of challenge, on the other hand, can lessen boredom. Optimal challenge—something hard enough to be stimulating, but not so hard as to be unachievable—can foster feelings of competence and mastery. A recent study found that even thinking about a challenge can “drive high-arousal mood states such as interest, engagement, and enthusiasm.”
4. Do it a different way.
If given the option, rats will choose new routes to food each time. Though humans are creatures of habit, we also need to explore the less familiar. Christopher Burney—an undercover Special Operations Executive during World War II who was captured and put in solitary confinement for 15 months—testified, "Variety is not the spice of life; it is the very stuff of it."
Try doing the same old things differently. If your managers complain that you’re violating the status quo, this could be an opportunity to tell them that you want to change up your daily to-do list.
5. Talk to people.
When bored, we lose physical and emotional perspective: After emerging from isolation, Hebb’s subjects reported that "things looked curved," and their sense of large and small was distorted. One way to regain perspective is to rely on landmarks, like people you trust telling you you’ve lost your mind. Boredom can do strange things to people, and it’s important to have a home base to ground your experiences.
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