Tired, irritable, restless? It may be 'boreout'

In the nation's hospitals, today's dread epidemics are Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium difficile. You've probably seen the scary news coverage: insidious infections that spread easily and have developed resistance to common antibiotics. At the office, the scary "bug" is boreout, according to a new book from Phillipe Rothlin and Peter Werder.

It affects as many as a third of employees, killing their initiative, energy and enthusiasm — overflowing from their workday to their free time, leaving those affected tired, depressed and generally dissatisfied, lacking a sense of purpose. It's been around for a long time, probably as long as industrialization. But it's more widespread and dangerous today, possibly due to the current accessibility of technology.

The word "burnout" was coined decades ago to describe employees who are overworked and overstressed. In their book, Boreout! Overcoming Workplace Demotivation, Rothlin and Werder claim that the phenomenon of boreout is just as widespread and damaging as burnout — and strangely enough, the symptoms are often very similar.

Under-stretched vs. overstressed

European business consultants Rothlin and Werder have written a book for employers as well as employees, since boreout affects not only individuals, but entire companies and industries. Every company wants and needs engaged workers. But in a recent survey about time-wasting in the workplace conducted for Salary.com and AOL, 33 percent of the more than 10,000 respondents declared that they didn't have enough to do at work.

According to Kelly Services, an international agency, under-stretched employees represent the largest group of truly unsatisfied staff, 44 percent. That is more unsatisfied respondents than in the stressed-out "burnout" group. The authors define boreout as "a growing workplace phenomenon that appears when disengaged employees grow increasingly indifferent to their jobs and ultimately feel cut off from their company and its interests."

The boreout employees feels:

  • Under-stretched and unsatisfied with the job
  • Lacking in commitment
  • Bored — takes refuge in his own world: planning the next vacation, the weekend shopping trip and future life during working hours, and
  • Frustrated and dissatisfied.

What to do?

The authors state that the responsibility for boreout lies with many people, not just the affected employee. Is it due to laziness? Usually not, they contend. The stress of long workdays and their efforts to disseminate — filling up time to look busy — and the low self-esteem that comes from the feeling that they are not trusted enough to shoulder interesting tasks, is stressful in itself. Most people would rather do meaningful work than be bored.

Employers need to understand the boreout phenomenon and act accordingly. "Employers need to make room for and encourage employee communications," the authors write. "Simple efforts to give positive feedback make a difference, and adding challenging, non-repetitive work tasks also helps." Checking up, blocking Internet sites and other pre-emptive punitive measures will not work, they say.

Employees who are determined to employ strategies for avoiding work, who artificially stretch deadlines and waste time, will always find a way around these tactics — especially in an age of personal technologies such as cell phones which offer games, email, Web surfing and texting. Ultimately, the key to eliminating boreout rests with the employee, who must find satisfaction in the workplace. According to Rothlin and Werder, satisfaction results from a combination of ingredients.

The cure for boreout: qualitative pay

Satisfaction results from what the authors call "qualitative pay," defined as meaning, time and money. "Meaning, time and money combined is the vehicle to avoid or cure boreout. The three together in balance are the cure." The authors stress the importance of personal responsibility to combat boreout. Ultimately it is the employees who must take charge of their own lives by becoming aware of their own circumstances and recognizing their individual needs.

Employees suffering from boreout must recognize their symptoms and ask themselves tough questions: Do I have the courage to communicate with my superiors? Am I in the right career? Do I need to make a risky change? Readers might be asking themselves at this point: Does boreout continue to be a concern in today's recessionary economy? In an addendum to the book, the authors say, "Yes."

"Boreout is still a problem in a time of recession," the authors contend. "We get daily e-mails from people who don't know what to do during their work time. They work with companies that started to lay people off, but their individual, personal situation has not changed, even given the bad economic environment.

One thing is different: "Under-challenged employees are not happier to have a job, to be able to pay their bills at the end of the month. They stay in the same job longer and put up with their bad situation. They don't dare to change." Boreout continues to be a reality, the authors state, "because bad corporate cultures, bad leaders and managers and bad communications cultures don't disappear from the map just because the economy is going bad."

Bottom Line:

Do you suffer from boreout? If you answer "yes" to four or more of these questions, it's time to take action — either by stepping up to the plate at your workplace or looking for a new job that provides more challenge, meaning and/or salary.

  • Do you complete private tasks at work?
  • Do you feel under-challenged or bored?
  • Do you sometimes pretend to be busy?
  • Are you tired and apathetic after work even though you experienced no stress in the office?
  • Are you unhappy with your work?
  • Do you find your work meaningless?
  • Could you complete your work quicker than you are doing?
  • Are you afraid of changing your job because you might take a salary cut?
  • Do you send private e-mails to colleagues during working hours?
  • Do you have little or no interest in your work?

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