It’s easy to mistake boredom for employee burnout.
The Great Resignation has been attributed in part to employee burnout. But is that really what’s going on?
It’s true that some employees might very well feel overburdened. Are you leaning too much on your high performers? And some are stressed out by the pressure to always be on. What unstated message are you sending along with those 10pm Saturday evening emails? But overall, your employee burnout problem might actually be something very different: an employee boredom problem.
The High Cost of Employee Boredom
The dwindling employee engagement among some of your team members just might be based on the fact that they’re doing too little, not too much. Think about it: They’re commuting less. Socializing less. They may be physically “present” in meetings and responsive to emails, but they’re detached in spirit. And so they grow to dread going to (or logging on to) work. They’ve spent too much time in Zoom meetings without agendas or goals, surrounded by the same four walls every day.
Boredom is a job killer that can also have a serious, negative snowball effect. It’s been documented that “boreout” (chronic boredom) “increase[s] the likelihood of employees’ turnover and early retirement intentions, poor self-rated health and stress symptoms.” In other studies, people have said they feel bored for a large chunk of their work week and that boredom with their current work was the primary reason they were looking for a new job. The increase in turnover can then accelerate problems elsewhere when the employees who remain become overloaded.
It’s easy to mistake boredom for burnout. In both cases, employees can feel wiped out mentally, emotionally and even physically, but in the case of boredom, this comes from doing less, not more. Boredom can lead to anxiety and a feeling of being overwhelmed just as much as burnout can. It can also create the same symptoms of cynicism, complaining and general apathy.
Why Your Employees Might Be Bored
Regardless of what’s going on, employee retention is very clearly a 2022 imperative for everyone. It’s important to get out in front of retention issues early as well as understand what it’s really going to cost you if you do lose an employee — and what steps you can take to minimize your turnover rates. Boredom is one very real factor, and it can be caused by any one or more of a number of underlying circumstances:
Pandemic-related issues remain.
Isolation from the social and cultural aspects of work can make the job less inspiring and enjoyable. And while the pandemic has given many employees more flexibility in their jobs, some have been allowed to say “no” to so much that they’ve cleared the decks and actually need to find some things to say yes to. Take time to put your manager hat aside sometimes and prioritize coaching with empathy.
Their employee purpose is ambiguous: Does what I’m doing matter?
Giving meaning to the job is not just up to the employee. Managers play a critical role in helping their employees find the “why” in what they’re doing. But many managers are too busy to engage with their employees on these issues—often because they’re putting out fires all day, doing work that should be delegated or they’re failing to involve others in meaningful projects that can develop them.
Their work is viewed as tedious: Is what they’re doing too repetitive?
Those same managers who say they’re too busy to coach and work with their employees on some of those deeper issues may be feeling overburdened and could be teetering on burnout. But they might also just be their own worst enemies since there’s likely a wealth of diverse talent on the team that’s going to waste. We can’t expect employees to stay highly engaged when their day is filled with tedium.
Combating Boredom in the Workplace
Chances are, at least some of your employees who have left — or are thinking of leaving — feel unchallenged, uninspired and unclear on the value their daily work brings. It’s on you as a leader to help them pull out of that nosedive.
Here are some ways to fight the bore-out and keep your employees from joining in the ‘Big Quit.’
Cross-train employees and encourage networking
People can’t simply repeat the same exercises day in and day out and continue to stay at the top of their game. Just like in physical fitness, they need to use their mental muscles in different ways. Find opportunities for your employees to cross-train. Shadow others from a directly related or even entirely different part of the company and learn something unrelated to their current role (or related but from a brand new perspective).
You can also create cross-functional teams that expose employees to people they don’t know as well and projects they’re less familiar with. Not only is this a great way to stimulate creative thinking and enhance company culture, it gets people out of their comfort zones, which can be highly motivating. The employee should take accountability for expanding their horizons as well. Encourage networking, which can help people learn from what others are doing to find inspiration and drive from their work.
Be clearer about your company values
Is your mission, vision and values just a poster on the wall in the lobby or a break room, or do you actually help your people live it? Lack of alignment with the company’s values can lead to real detachment from the organization overall, which ultimately leads many people to isolate and eventually leave. One of the primary functions of leaders is to reconnect people to the bigger picture of why they’re doing what they’re doing. This is what sustains your employees when the inevitable dull tasks come up that we all have to deal with.
Go deeper with coaching conversations
Go beyond “yes and no” type of questions. Put aside the to-do lists and small talk. Instead, really focus on the employee in ways that show you trust them and are vested in their success and job satisfaction, and that you care about more than just “getting things done.”
This is an ideal opportunity to probe for signs of boredom and understand what you can do to help prevent it in the future. Ask your employees to be candid about when they last worked on or finished a project that really energized them. What was it about that work that fueled them? What type of team was involved? Was the deadline realistic? Did they feel supported during and appreciated after? That the work mattered? How?
An employee may find it hard to admit to their manager that they’ve been bored, but you have to make a safe space for that conversation to happen. Frame it as trying to help them get back on the path of advancing their career and making a real difference for the company and for customers. These coaching conversations also can’t be just a one-time thing. Coaching is ongoing and consistent.
Invest more in employee training and development
Offering training, skills development and clear career advancement opportunities and paths helps employees feel valued, and it gives them a hill to climb. Because your best people want to be challenged. Along with the opportunity to learn new skills and grow in their careers, challenge increases motivation, engagement and ultimately retention and performance. It’s also typically among the strongest — and most stable —predictors of satisfaction.
Jobs with challenge help people learn new things, develop untapped or dormant skills and feel a greater sense of worth and belonging. It might not be feasible to really “learn something new every day,” but if you have employees who feel they haven’t learned anything new in a long time, you have a problem.
Offer more job autonomy
No one wants to be micromanaged, and few things communicate a lack of trust and belief in someone as micromanagement. But there is a difference between isolation and autonomy. Isolation is feeling abandoned, ignored or cast aside. Autonomy is about exhibiting trust and belief in your people so that they feel greater ownership.
As a leader, this means you have to show your confidence in them to get things done and done well. Most people actually set lower standards for themselves than they’re capable of achieving. They fall into ruts or habits that can feel comfortable at first but then become boredom. Of all the factors that influence someone’s productivity, at the top of the list are expectations and beliefs — their own as well as their manager’s.
Recognize more employee accomplishment
Appreciation goes a long way, especially in reinforcing that someone’s work has real meaning and value. Sure, recognition can come in the form of more pay. But it can also mean recognizing the person publicly on a company call or through your monthly, quarterly or annual company awards. Share details about the impact they’ve made, and create a consistent, positive feedback loop.
Employee burnout definitely does exist, but increasingly, we’re seeing that other factors are coming into play in the Great Resignation. The good news is, these ideas are applicable regardless of the environment. They’ll help you stave off employee boredom and burnout while building a more engaged, motivated and loyal workforce dedicate to delivering amazing customer experiences in the process.
Vice President of Marketing
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