Bored at work? Read this. A third of all U.S. workers struggle with 'boreout.' But there are remedies.

This article was printed in The Christian Science Monitor, November 17, 2008.
by Marilyn Gardner

Nicole Haase would like to work harder than she does. But as a receptionist and payroll administrator for a manufacturing firm in Milwaukee, she finds limited opportunities to take on more duties.

“Work is slow, and we’re a small company, so it’s not always easy to find other things to do,” Ms. Haase says. To fill empty moments, she e-mails friends and works on freelance writing assignments. “The Internet is my friend – anything to make the time pass,” she says, adding that the strain of having too little to do creates its own kind of burnout.

Now there’s a name for this kind of underemployment: boreout. In a new book, “Boreout! Overcoming Workplace Demotivation,” authors Philippe Rothlin and Peter Werder call it a pervasive problem. Studies show that one-third of workers in the United States do not have enough to do. Underchallenged employees spend more than two hours a day on personal matters. Employers waste over $5,000 a year per worker on boreout.

The authors, business consultants in Europe, explain that boreout, the opposite of burnout, consists of three elements: being “understretched,” uncommitted, and bored in the workplace.

Many underutilized employees ask for more work after starting a new job, says Mr. Werder, of Zurich. “But after one year, although they hate boreout, they stop asking, because no one takes it seriously.” Aware that they cannot simply sit at their desks and stare into space, many workers devise strategies to look busy. That often involves technology. “Mobile phones, the Internet, and e-mail make it much easier to pretend to work, to hide that you do not have enough work,” Werder says.

For Haase, the road to boreout began after she graduated from college with degrees in journalism and Spanish. Saddled with student loans and needing a paycheck, she took her current job two years ago. “When I was hired, they saw my skill set and said they would use it,” she says. “But I’m in my receptionist bubble, and they’re not necessarily willing to let me try to do anything more.”

Megan Rothman, a marketing copywriter near Charlotte, N.C., describes herself as underchallenged. “One reason I took this position was because I was told we would all wear many hats because we are a small, private company,” she says. But after she was hired, that never happened.

“I have asked to take on additional responsibilities or projects that may be outside the typical range of my job description, but my boss doesn’t seem to be willing to accommodate me,” Ms. Rothman says. “I have lots of skills besides writing, but none of them are being taken advantage of.”

She divides her idle time equally between productive tasks, such as reading marketing blogs or doing writing exercises, and nonwork activities, such as Gmail and MySpace.

As unemployment rates soar, Haase, Rothman, and others who feel underworked are quick to express appreciation for having a job and a paycheck. At the same time, workplace specialists emphasize the importance of remaining committed and connected to their employer.

“These days, with the economy, it behooves people to notice their boredom and think about what they can add to their job,” says Daisy Swan, a career strategist in Los Angeles.

She observes that boredom often produces feelings of resignation. “People think, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ Maybe there is something you can do. If your company pays for continuing education, sometimes getting involved in a class outside can show your supervisor what else you’re willing to take on in your work.”

Werder advises employees struggling with boreout to ask, Is this really what I want to do? “Some people are in the wrong job, though not the wrong company,” he says. A worker can also ask: Do my bosses know about my ability? Do they know I don’t have enough to do? Do I communicate what I want to do?

Sometimes businesses simply have too many employees for the work available. Ms. Swan offers another reason for underemployment. “A lot of people take shadow positions to what they’d really like,” she says. “They love to play music, but they work for a music distributor.” The task is to see if they can increase the music in another area of their life.

Other times, she adds, “Maybe the boredom is a real message that you need to make a change.”

Doug Newberry of Cincinnati started working for his current employer, a heating and air conditioning contractor, nearly 25 years ago. “The job is easy, so I am not challenged,” he says.

Over the years he has developed outside interests as a volunteer with nonprofit organizations. Now he would like to work for a nonprofit.

“I started my own company that does fundraising and event management for nonprofits, but that has not taken off because of my lack of after-work time to commit to it,” Mr. Newberry says. “I’m constantly thinking of new jobs or new events that will hit big so I can quit my unchallenging job. I end up surfing networking sites while at work, hoping to find a lead on something.”

Haase thinks about her dream job, too. “It would be wonderful if someone would hire me as a sportswriter,” she says. “But the older I get, the less likely it is that I can start out at $18,000 a year in Podunk, Idaho. The job market isn’t the easiest to break into. I’ve been looking, but money is always the biggest concern, so I have to stick with what’s steady though boring, so I can pay my bills.”

For those eager for greater challenges, Steve Bohler, director of the Oxford Program for Career Change in Cooperstown, N.Y., suggests a first step. “Daydream,” he says. “Mentally get yourself out of your job. It’s a good chance to envision what your best possible solutions are.”

For employers concerned about boredom on the job, J.B. Bryant, a business consultant in Orrville, Ohio, offers this reminder: “People don’t want to be bored. Given the opportunity, they’ll be productive to their fullest ability.”