Bored at work? That doesn't have to be a bad thing

| Jelle Posthuma

For many managers, employees who get bored during working hours are a nightmare. But according to UT researcher Caroline Fischer, it doesn't have to be a problem. 'Boredom is a functional emotion.'

Photo: Caroline Fischer.

Preparing lectures, writing research proposals, doing research, answering emails and grading exams: Caroline Fischer herself has little or no need to be bored as an assistant professor in Public Administration at the UT. In fact, she regularly longs for a free hour to daydream. It triggered Fischer and Carina Schott (assistant professor at the Utrecht University) to conduct a literature study into workplace boredom.

As it turned out, boredom is mainly seen as something negative. ‘We started our research with management literature. In these studies, workplace boredom is seen as unproductive and not valuable. Managers even make up all kinds of nonsense tasks or jobs to avoid it.' And this is bound to increase, the assistant professor expects. 'Due to digitisation and robotisation, more and more human tasks will be reduced to monitoring, where boredom is likely to occur.'

To get a different perspective, Fischer and Schott decided to use psychological literature in addition to the management studies. 'That provided us with a very different picture. Within positive psychology, boredom is seen as a functional emotion, stressing a positive aspect in this unpleasant state. When people are bored, they instinctively look for different things to do. It is a coping mechanism, because boredom is actually not a pleasant feeling. This search for distraction does not have to be negative. It might as well lead to new insights and directions in work.'


Organisations can help employees to discover these ‘bright sides’ of boredom. For this, autonomy is key, argues Fischer. 'Organisations should deal with boredom in a more relaxed way. It is not the end of the world when employees get bored for a while.' Still, it is important to guide the search. 'It is of little use when an employee starts listening to music to avoid boredom. Therefore, a manager should provide alternatives during moments of boredom, such as online training and courses. Promoting a chat in the hallway with colleagues can also lead to positive outcomes: people exchange ideas and widen their network. In this way, it facilitates productive coping behaviours.'

For their research, Fischer and Schott did a comprehensive literature review. A follow-up would be an empirical study on workplace boredom. 'Think of a fire brigade, where employees are waiting in standby mode for the next call. We know from studies that employees develop negative coping mechanisms in these situations, such as excessive snacking and aggression. The question is whether this is due to boredom. We would like to study that in the future.'

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