Bored at work: what your apathy is trying to tell you

Nov 02, 2021

8 mins

Bored at work: what your apathy is trying to tell you
Sonia ValenteLab expert

Sonia Valente is an author and certified career transition coach passionate about multipotentialite professionals

You’ve been in the office for only an hour but it feels like three. You often tell yourself, “I am not living up to my full potential and I’m not challenged enough.” Or you may think, “It doesn’t matter. My job is pointless anyway.” Sound familiar? You’re likely suffering from boredom at work. Boredom is about more than time dragging when you’re at work. For sufferers, it can feel like they have a very tiresome colleague who eagerly waits for their arrival each morning and then follows them around all day long. Sometimes, you can hide; sometimes, you can’t. But it’s never far from your thoughts and won’t let you forget it. It can cause a long list of symptoms, including insomnia, impatience, stress, irritability, fatigue, low levels of motivation and self-esteem.

But what exactly is your boredom trying to tell you? How can you interpret the signs? Here’s a closer look at boredom in the workplace and what it really means.

Listen to what your boredom is trying to tell you

Boredom at work has a bad reputation, but it can be a useful emotion for guiding you in making life-altering changes. And when used wisely, boredom can even be a source of well-being and creativity (more on that later). Unfortunately, when most people experience boredom at work, they tend to dismiss it or run from it. Keeping quiet about it, hiding it, denying and repressing it are all “typical” reactions, especially if you feel grateful for having a job in the current climate or have a tendency to avoid negative feelings.

Big mistake! Doing nothing about it makes the situation worse. That’s how boredom turns into boreout. Without trivializing more extreme workplace issues, boredom deserves more attention. If you noticed your company had underpaid you one month, you’d likely say something about it. So why not do the same with boredom? When you were hired, you probably weren’t told that “resistance to boredom” was one of the job requirements.

Overcoming boredom involves identifying the type of boredom you’re dealing with in the first place. Every problem has its own solution!

1. When being bored really means, ‘My work lacks purpose’

Does your job seem pointless and superficial? Do you think that the work you’re doing has no benefit to society? Do you feel your job isn’t essential and, unlike your teacher or social worker friend, no one would notice if it just disappeared? Then you are probably experiencing something I call “asemantic boredom.” Let’s confirm my hunch by digging deeper.

Here, boredom is testing your notions of what you find meaningful. You can have a socially desirable job where you are always in demand yet find your work “meaningless.” The answer lies in what you define as a “meaningful” role. It’s all a question of perception, which is why it’s important to define it for yourself. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – we’ll get into all that when we talk about solutions.

In the workplace, a lack of meaning shows up in two instances: in the work process and in the purpose of that work.

‘What added value does my work bring?’

As an example, imagine you spend two hours trying to decide what color T-shirt to put on your company’s website for its next advertising campaign. Then you give up because, in reality, you just don’t see the difference between “maroon” and “burgundy.” Or maybe you spend most of your day entering data that nobody uses into Excel spreadsheets. If these examples sound familiar, then your lack of meaning likely stems from your daily tasks and projects, which you don’t find challenging enough.

‘What about my own values?’

Beyond the impact it has on our job, lack of meaning can tie into the whole notion of contribution. The feeling that you don’t contribute anything can come from the disconnect between the impact our job has and our values. To find out if you are affected by this type of boredom, take a step back. Do you ever complain that your job or employer goes against your values? There you have it.

The good news is, whether it’s about what you do or who you work for, nothing is set in stone. To get out of this “asemantic” boredom, ask yourself a few questions. How do you define meaningful work? Who do you think has a meaningful job? In your personal or professional life, have you ever felt really motivated by something you were doing? And if so, what was it? After answering these tough questions, you may be wondering what to do next. Here are some ideas:

  • Depending on your role and how much freedom you have to adjust things, consider getting away from your usual working environment. For example, leave the office to meet clients so you can better understand their needs and maintain your professional network.

  • If you can’t find an internal solution, think about joining a company that is more in line with your values and motivations? You could even explore the idea of getting more training and pursuing a job that really excites you. The latter decision should not be taken lightly, but it might be an option for you.

2. When being bored really means, ‘I deserve more’

Does “asemantic” boredom not match your situation? Perhaps you feel like you don’t belong in your job because you aren’t using your talents and skills. You may sometimes feel that you are being paid to do nothing. Or that you’re stuck doing this job for life because there is no room for advancement. This kind of boredom is linked to feeling unappreciated or undervalued at work. I call it “unchanging boredom,” and it’s expressed in three ways.

‘My talents and skills are wasted here.’

You might fall into this category if, for example, you were hired as a HR manager because of your strong interpersonal skills. Meanwhile, you end up spending your days either doing administrative tasks or organizing, entering and checking data. You do most of it alone in front of your computer.

In this scenario, several options are available to you:

  • Volunteer to help with an internal project where you can put your skills to good use. For example, if you are good at planning events, offer to organize your company’s next one.

  • You can also try to use your unused skills to do your job even better. Imagine you give training courses in business law, but you’re also very creative. Get creative in your next session by designing your own quizzes or original activities. This not only makes things fun for the participants, but also helps you feel more challenged.

  • And if you lack similar opportunities, consider quitting your job so you can apply for another one or even get a side hustle going on while you keep working.

‘I barely have enough work to fill one day.’

In this scenario, your manager doesn’t give you enough work or responsibilities. Your workload dwindles until you end up feeling sidelined. You’re in an awkward position. Afraid you’ll be found out, you deliberately linger over tasks, take your time whenever using the internet for research and attempt to hit up colleagues for extra work, all to no avail. If minutes feel like hours at work, then you’re bored because you don’t have enough to do.

It’s time to put all your cards on the table and tell your employer that you need more to do. Ask to meet with them about your concerns and even share your work calendar or schedule if you have one. If you don’t have one, create one. You want to show your manager how much time you spend on tasks so that you can gauge your productivity. After all, you’re not there to twiddle your thumbs but to make yourself useful.

And if your concerns go unheard, don’t let the situation drag on – think about your future. Consider leaving the company and joining an organization that really needs you.

‘When the hell will I finally be promoted?’

In this scenario, your assignments are repetitive and too easy for you. Playing second fiddle to your boss was fine at first, but you know you can handle more responsibility. Perhaps you’re interested in having more say in decision-making or being more intellectually stimulated or challenged. You’ve been in your job for years without any hope of advancement, but it’s not for lack of trying! You’ve expressed a clear desire to progress, but your manager keeps telling you to wait. But for how long? Time passes and still nothing happens. As a result, you’re not only frustrated but also feel like you’re going backwards, and that you’re undervalued and useless? You gradually lose confidence in yourself and in your future. Feeling resigned to the situation, you tell yourself that nothing will change.

Stop waiting around. Try taking an active part in your career development and tell your manager you’d like to take a training course. If an interesting position opens up in your company, consider applying for it yourself. The main thing is to show your manager that you’re good at what you do and ready to move up. To support your case, provide concrete evidence such as positive feedback from satisfied customers or past performance reviews. You can also show proof of how you’ve gone the extra mile to meet your objectives.

3. When being bored really means, ‘This isn’t where I thought I’d end up.’

Have you ever imagined yourself traveling back in time and starting all over? Do you secretly dream of setting up your own business or following your life’s passion? When you meet someone who took the leap and switched careers, do you feel envious or even jealous? You’ve always kept your head down, simply putting in your hours and leaving it at that. More recently, however, you feel torn between the comfort and security of your current job and the desire to do something that makes you excited to get up in the morning. If any of this sounds familiar, then you are likely suffering from “asynchronous boredom.”

In this situation, it’s important to take your circumstances into consideration. For example, you may be struggling to pay your mortgage or to pay off credit card debt. Or you may have extra responsibilities at home, such as taking care of a dependent parent. In these circumstances, quitting your job to follow your passion may not be an option, but that doesn’t mean you have permission to give up on your dreams. There are temporary solutions that can stop you from having to live with regrets and failed dreams. For example, you could pursue your passion on the side by starting a new hobby or doing volunteer work that matches your values and beliefs. Anything you try has the potential to open up new opportunities or generate income in the future.

But, if your personal circumstances allow you to do so, I advise you to take the plunge and make your dreams a reality, whether that means launching your own business or training to become a florist. Before making any major changes, however, it’s important to see if you can get any support from your employer. For example, you may be able to access training through work. You can also ask for more flexible or reduced working hours if you plan to go back to school. Finally, before any career change, it’s vital that you have some money in savings to get you through the transition.

4. When being bored really means, ‘Doing nothing is good for me sometimes.’

Perhaps you find work stimulating and rewarding as long as you’re busy. But the minute things get slow, you panic at the thought of impending boredom. Lucky for you, this type of boredom is called ‘profitable boredom.’ Yes, you read it right – boredom can be lucrative.

In the digital era, most people are constantly beset with emails, calls, messages and texts. Many professionals have told me they’ve developed a “fear of free time.” This is also known as “leisurephobia,” a term coined by Spanish psychologist Rafael Santandreu. People with this phobia are motivated by productivity. They measure their success quantitatively by tallying up their achievements. Having time to yourself can be daunting in today’s society. But doing nothing can actually be good for you.

A study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries magazine revealed that boredom is positive and even necessary for creativity and well-being. Being bored gives you a chance to let go, focus on yourself and let your imagination run wild.

So what has boredom told us? Have you figured out which type of boredom you experience? Is it so crippling that it causes physical and moral suffering? Instead, consider your type of boredom as a friend who wants only the best for you. After all, only a trusted friend can tell you difficult truths. Finally, if your situation isn’t dire, stop feeling guilty about not having the perfect job. There’s no such thing as the perfect role and there’s more to life than work. Just because your job has its dull moments doesn’t mean you’ve failed in your career. Maybe our expectations of work are too high these days? That’s certainly something to think about.

Translated by: Andrea Schwam

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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