Why Boring Jobs Demoralize Us, and How to Stay Motivated

Why our work lives need to matter to us.

Posted Sep 02, 2020

Frédéric Desnard sued his employer for boring him out of his skull — well, for causing him undue mental stress in his workplace born of the relentless monotony he was subjected to. He had been made redundant in his job in 2014, launched his first suit for €360,000 in 2016, and was finally awarded €40,000 this past month. Are we on the precipice of a wave of lawsuits that will weaponize boredom as a complaint? It's doubtful, but this isn’t a notion that Desnard came up with himself. Monotony, particularly in the workplace, has been a hotbed for boredom since the Industrial revolution.[i]

More recently two Swiss business consultants, Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin,[ii] coined the term ‘bore-out’ to capture feelings of distress arising from the tedium of a job that neither challenges you, nor provides any sense of meaning. And this is no laughing matter: English epidemiologists Britton and Shipley showed in 2011 that people reporting high levels of boredom in the workplace were more likely to die from heart disease decades later. So boredom at work is a serious concern.

It certainly was for Desnard. He has been quoted as saying, “You go on the internet at first, and then you shut yourself in an empty office and you cry.” He was employed by a perfume manufacturer in Paris and claims that he was given trivial jobs to merely keep him occupied – what soldiers call ‘busy work’, meaningless jobs meant to avoid the problem of idle hands being the Devil’s playthings. For Desnard the jobs held little to no challenge or meaning for him and ultimately as a result, he felt bored and eventually depressed.

What his tale tells us is that for many, if not most of us, work needs to contain at least a modicum of challenge and meaning. We may even need to find a kind of Goldilocks zone for both things – not too much and not too little.

There is research that suggests both ends of a challenge spectrum – too little or too much — can lead to boredom. Reinhard Pekrun and his colleagues developed a theory of this in regards to boredom in education settings – what they called the control-value theory. For students to succeed, particularly in math, they need some level of autonomy/control over what they do and they need to see value in the activity. Math is a great example: If the operations we are doing are too simple (e.g., adding 2 plus 2) we will be bored. But if they stretch our skills beyond their breaking point – solving partial differential equations without substantial tutoring – we will also become bored (perhaps after we first get frustrated[iii]).

We tested this Goldilocks notion directly by having people play rock, paper, scissors against a computer opponent under two conditions – one in which they arbitrarily lost all the time and another in which they won every game. In the former, you have little sense that your choices matter. You try rock first (particularly if you’re a male – apparently we choose rock 66% of the time as our first play: Good ol’ rock!). But rock fails. You go to the other options, you try combinations, you even go with the same response – paper this time – over and over again. Nothing works. Your win rate languishes at 33%. For these guys, frustration rose early, but it wasn’t long before boredom set in. For the other group, who won all the time, perhaps they felt good about themselves early on but eventually the whole thing became boring.

Martin Ulrich and colleagues used similar logic in brain imaging studies showing that when under- or over-challenged we activate posterior portions of the default mode network – a network of brain regions typically activated when there is no external task to engage with and the same regions we see activated when people get bored. Clearly, we strive for a Goldilocks zone of challenge, one that Frédéric Desnard was sorely missing.

But monotony does not always have to defeat us. Researching in the early part of the 20th Century, Hugo Münsterberg was stunned when he interviewed a worker who had what he assumed to be a monstrously boring task: pushing a piece of metal into an automated drill at the right place and right time for holes to be made, a task he repeated tens of thousands of times a day. But when asked if he found it boring, the man said no. He saw value not only in the wage that depended on his productivity and ultimately provided for his family, but also in the activity itself. He was both extrinsically and intrinsically motivated by it.

Carol Sansone and colleagues also showed that given the right framework, the boring can become tolerable. Telling participants that a dull task had been shown previously to have other benefits (maybe it improved intelligence, maybe it was associated with better health) led to greater persistence and less boredom. Clearly, we can tolerate a lot if it means something to us. But again, for Desnard, meaning was patently absent.

But are meaning and challenge all there is to a successful, engaging work life? At least one other factor is important to our ability to engage, at work or elsewhere: agency. We need to feel that we are the authors of our own lives, that what we choose to do flows from desires within us, desires that give expression to who we are. When either losing or winning a children’s game of rock, paper, scissors our actions become superfluous, so why bother? In contrast, the factory worker Münsterberg interviewed saw the outcome of his actions every time he pushed the metal plate into place. Monotonous to be sure, but he was at all times the master of his actions. And their outcomes were obvious.

Robert White spoke of this in the 1950’s, calling it effectance motivation. Among the many drives (e.g., hunger, thirst, etc.) that govern human behavior, White suggested we should include the drive to exert an influence on our immediate environs. We feel at our best when our actions lead to the intended outcomes. Ultimately, satisfying the drive to be an effective agent leads to higher self-esteem and satisfaction with life. It is hard to feel bored if the things we do lead to meaningful and obvious results.

When the term bore-out was conceived it was intended to reflect the opposite of burn-out – elevated stress from being overworked. Boredom – the uncomfortable feeling of being disengaged from one’s environs – can arise at both ends of the spectrum, when we are either under- or over-challenged. And it is the feeling that we have been made superfluous to the situation that may matter most. Boredom descends on us when whatever we choose to do makes little to no difference to the situation. We will either remain mired in the tedium of tasks we see as beneath us, as Desnard was, or we will keep sinking under ever-increasing demands we are unable to fulfill.

What price should we put on finding that Goldilocks zone in our jobs? The courts will ultimately decide that for people like Desnard. But for the rest of us, we may go a long way to avoiding such lawsuits if first we consider finding the best skill-challenge fit possible in the workplace and beyond.

References

[i] Munsterberg, Hugo. 1913. Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Boston: Mifflin.

[ii] Boreout! Overcoming workplace demotivation. Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin, (English edition) Kogan Page, October 2008.

[iii] For a fascinating discussion of the value of boredom, frustration and anticipation see Elpidorou, A. (2020). Propelled: How boredom, frustration, and anticipation lead us to the good life. Oxford University Press.