Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 32
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Bored at Work

Research identifies new ways to help employees cope with boredom.

At this moment, as you're reading this article, what are your hands doing? Drumming a tabletop? Stroking a pencil? Reading stimulates your eyes and your mind, but nothing else. Your hands are bored, but they can't get your attention to tell you, so they're relieving their boredom with these movements.

As you continue to read, thoughts occur to you which are of greater importance than reading this article. Your reading slows, you forget how the paragraph started, and you stop and go back and start again. Your reading has been disrupted. Frustrated, you blame the article for being boring.

Your employees are having a similar experience right now with the jobs you've assigned them to do, and as you blame me for my writing style, your employees are blaming you too, for your management style and for the jobs they must do. Fair . . . ? Maybe, maybe not, but it's better to consider what you can do about it.

Boredom on the job varies in importance depending upon the setting. One researcher documented the case of an entire airline cockpit crew falling asleep and over-flying their destination by 100 miles before air traffic controllers woke them and asked where they were going.

Cynthia Fisher, a management professor in Australia, took a hard look at the recent research on boredom in the workplace and pulled together some insights which will help supervisors and business owners help employees cope with boredom.

Repetitive tasks cause boredom because they demand attention while providing little stimulation in return. Managers can relieve this by making jobs more interesting. They can increase the number of tasks required in a job and thereby increase the number of skills a person must use. They can arrange the work so people must carry through with an entire operation and not pass on partially completed work. They can increase the importance of tasks by making others depend upon a person's work. They can increase a person's sense of self control by allowing more autonomy. And they can arrange quality checks employees can perform which will reveal how well a task has been completed.

All these help reduce boredom, but research reveals that it isn't enough.

Co-workers also influence boredom. If they call attention to boring aspects of the job, others will pay attention to these duties and agree they are dull. But if people call attention to stimulating aspects of the job, other employees follow along and boredom is reduced.

The lesson for supervisors and business owners is clear: discourage the former and encourage the latter. Call attention to opportunities for stimulation in the job yourself, and point out complexities in the work that add interest.

Extroverts have been found to need more stimulation from their jobs that introverts. Young people are also more likely to suffer boredom. And high capability employees will suffer boredom if they are given jobs with many monotonous tasks. So if you wish to staff a job you fear is boring, you best choice would be an older, lower capability, introvert. Recent shootings in post offices reveal the consequences of staffing monotonous positions with high-capability employees.

Goals also affect boredom, especially challenging goals. They add to a sense of purpose, they stimulate values of achievement and competence, and they add a sense of uncertainty (“will I achieve my goal?”). Goals also add importance to feedback about task outcomes and spur innovation to improve performance.

Most researchers believe employees should set their own goals, but self-set goals bypass an important reason many people have for working: to please a manager who cares very much about the job they are doing. (These managers would prefer to involve themselves in establishing these goals.)

Additional stimulation helps with boredom. Listening to music, for example, can help maintain alertness for a strictly visual task, like driving. But it's important the additional stimulation not compete with attention needed for the task. For example, most kinds of additional stimulation reduce performance for inspection tasks.

And finally, helping others also reduces boredom. Just as teaching is an excellent way to learn something, helping someone else is an excellent way to increase interest in the job. Thus, assigning a bored employee to help another employee will relieve that person's boredom.

Bored employees are a menace to business. Their performance suffers, they influence others to be bored, they spoil the experience our customers come to our businesses to receive, and they may even pose a danger to patron's safety. Recognizing and doing something about these employees is something supervisors and business owners must do. Thanks to Ms. Fisher, these managers now have a whole new arsenal of responses they can make which will help.

Reference: Fisher, Cynthia D. (1993) Boredom at Work: A Neglected Concept. Human Relations, 46 (3), 395-417.

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