Six steps for stamping out workplace boredom

06 May 2015 -


As employee engagement creeps further up the management agenda, psychologist Sandi Mann has called workplace boredom the “new stress”

Jermaine Haughton

Workplace boredom is the “new stress”, according to business psychologist Sandi Mann. In an interview with CNN, Mann provided some concerning points for managers to consider at a time when employee engagement has become a coveted goal for every type of organisation. According to her research, boredom is the second most commonly hidden workplace emotion after anger. She also warned that modern workplaces are becoming even more boring, thanks to the increasingly systematic and organised nature of most office environments – which she says are scarcely any different to the experiences of workers in factory and production jobs.

“Changes in legislation all the time lead to bureaucratic procedures that people find boring,” she explained. “We seem to be in a culture of having meetings, which a lot of people find boring. There are a lot of automated systems now, so a lot of the things we do are quite remote. We have more people working night shifts, which are more boring because you've got fewer people to talk to.”

Mann, who has been studying the field for several years, found in previous research for The Psychologist magazine that boredom affects staff of all levels, from the trainee to the experienced chief executive, and noted that bored workers often equal lower productivity – an issue that has never been far from the debate over the UK’s economic performance.

With all that in mind, here are six tactics managers should use to slash staff boredom.

1. Set meaningful tasks

As the consumption of food, media, clothes and almost everything else gets faster, so our attention span gets shorter. And with more choices than ever before, people tend to choose products and even jobs on the basis of what they mean. As such, bosses must be willing to provide their staff with tasks that remind them of their input into the company. Mark de Rond of Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge says that leaders need to explain to teams “why what they do is important, who it matters to and why … It's that that keeps a team focused. Otherwise it's just work.”

2. Add variety, add value

In addition to grasping a sense of meaning, all types of workers like to experience different types of work. In a Forbes article, management professor Angelo Kinicki oft Arizona State University’s WP Carey School of Business advised bosses to vary the daily tasks they hand out to prevent staff boredom. If new tasks are not available, he said, then changing the order of the day or working in a different setting may provide fresh impetus. “It’s repetitiveness that’s the culprit,” he explained.

3. Challenge your staff, but don’t overwork them

In the same article, neuropsychologist Richard Chaifez pointed out that while employees may be busier than ever, they’re not necessarily doing more interesting work. “When we talk about ‘doing more with less,’ you have to consider what kind of work is piling up on people’s desks,” he said. “Often with layoffs, the type of work that’s doled out you wouldn’t need additional training to do. If it’s boring work, it just becomes more burdensome.” The message here is that the nature of the work has to change to maintain interest – not the amount.

4. Recruit suitable staff

Hiring staff who answer a firm’s skills demands – and fit in with its culture – is one of the hardest tasks that leaders ever undertake. Workers who do not feel comfortable with the workplace culture and their job responsibilities are more likely to feel disengaged, and symptoms of boredom are likely to arise. Instead of seeking staff who are talented in a number of different areas, hire talent that specialises in a particular field. That allows for employers to build a team of individuals with different skills that complement each other. It also makes clear the employee’s significance within the team and company. (Source)

5. Operate lean teams

Leaders must be active in structuring their company in a way that prevents talented employees from feeling lost in the crowd. One of the most effective ways of doing this is by building small and lean teams comprised of six to eight people. Dan Satterthwaite, head of human resources for Dreamworks Animation, believes that small teams are vital for fostering technological innovation and creativity, and that the method works for companies of all sizes. The studio has more 1,600 employees, but Satterthwaite explains that its lean working groups of around seven staff each enable the best visual output from each person, allowing colleagues to feel more comfortable about offering ideas and promoting greater engagement.

6. Encourage an open office culture

Managers should encourage staff to speak openly about their work issues and concerns. De Rond – who spent six weeks studying military surgeons at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan – found that it is necessary for workplaces to engineer a culture of “psychological safety” in which “it’s okay to ask questions”. The onus is on bosses to urge staff to be honest about their feelings towards their jobs. As De Rond explained, allowing employees to air the doubts and anxieties they have when they are bored is “a very frightening thing” for organisations to do, but will ultimately pay dividends.

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