‘Boreout’ Syndrome: The Causes, Consequences and Cures

  • April 4, 2019

“Whatever the importance of our work, its meaning comes from our values, from what governs our hearts and minds deeply”—Alex Pattakos, author

You’ve probably heard about burnout, but what about “boreout”? Research has shown 32% of European employees are at risk of being affected by boredom-burnout syndrome at work. That’s a lot, but don’t panic just yet, it’s not necessarily serious or permanent. Here, we take a look at its causes and consequences and how you can put things right.

What is boreout?

The boreout theory was first developed in 2007 by Philippe Rothlin and Peter Werder, two Swiss business consultants who looked at the causes and effects of this syndrome, which is still socially taboo. They describe boreout as an imbalance between time spent at work and the volume of tasks to be performed, among other things. Indeed, other authors state that boredom-burnout syndrome can also be caused by:

  • A lack of purpose felt by employees in their work

  • A lack of intellectual stimulation

  • A lack of prospect for progression

Unlike burnout, boreout can be caused by there being no work or too little of it (rather than being overloaded with it), which can have an adverse impact on an employee’s psychological well-being. Although there are different boredom thresholds, the onset of boreout is directly related to work tasks being too few and far between, off-putting, or meaningless, or that they take a substantial amount of time to complete.

For example, boreout may affect employees who are being nudged toward the door by being given fewer and fewer tasks or less-significant tasks to perform. The employee is dispossessed of their work and so is forced to resign. Yet cases of boreout syndrome can be found in many other situations and do not appear to be confined to any particular area of activity.

How do I know if I’m suffering from boreout?

Although the causes of boreout are very different from those of burnout, the consequences are relatively similar. If you’re suffering from boreout, you might experience the following symptoms:

  • Low self-esteem

  • Feelings of shame and culpability

  • Avoidance strategies, or “killing time”

  • Feeling disconnected at work

  • A crisis of social identity

  • A feeling of societal uselessness

  • Depression

Apart from these sometimes-critical effects on an employee’s psychological well-being, boreout also comes at a cost for the company, with the consequences including disengaged workers, absenteeism, a high staff turnover, work stoppage and resignations.

But don’t overlook the fact that boreout is time-bound. Indeed, you’re unlikely to suffer from this syndrome if the boredom you experience at work is only temporary, causing just a momentary dip in activity.

Is everyone affected?

There have been few studies carried out on the subject, so it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the number of employees affected, or even a profile of those at risk. However, a 2008 study by StepStone that involved 11,238 people from seven European countries reported that 32% of European employees said they had nothing to do. Another study conducted in France in 2013 by the French Directorate of Research, Studies and Statistics Coordination (DARES) showed that only 2% of the employees questioned felt permanently bored at work. These differing results are intriguing and encourage us to question the true scale of the problem.

The most affected sectors are said to be those that experience periods of high workload and peak periods of activity, such as seasonal jobs.

Lastly, some parts of society are more susceptible, such as young employees. This may be due to the commonly seen gap between the expectations young people have for their first job and the reality. This divergence could lead to a state of boreout, especially if the employees feel they are not being given enough stimulation.

I think I’m suffering from boreout: what do I do?

Prevention tactics are still very much in their infancy because this syndrome is still too often perceived as a “faking it,” meaning there’s little awareness of it from companies and therefore few prevention mechanisms put in place.

If you think you’re suffering from boreout, it is important to break the silence by talking to those around you and asking yourself the following questions:

  • How long has it been going on?

  • What is causing it?

  • What can I do to bring about a positive change?

One solution might be to contact your company’s human resources department to see how to improve the situation together. Mobility within the company could also make a difference. A change of position, company, or even career are other solutions that could help you find a role that better suits your skills, values, and personal motivations.

It’s also important to strike a balance between your private and professional life. Pursuing activities outside the work context that satisfy your inner ambitions might be a way of avoiding feelings of loss of identity and societal uselessness.

But why do we stay in a job we find boring?

The current social and economic crisis might explain why employees endure a situation of permanent boredom in their work lives. The fear of not finding alternative employment could therefore be a driving factor of boreout. Another is the fear of social judgment: it may be unthinkable to say you’re bored at work in a social environment where career success is highly coveted. This combination might explain why burnout might seem to be the more “politically correct” affliction than the still-too-vague boreout syndrome.

Boreout syndrome highlights the question of our sense of purpose at work and the importance of being in tune with our intrinsic motivations that lead us to self-actualization. So, there will always be time to ask yourself: what gives me purpose?

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Photograph by Alejandro Escamilla

Translated by Matthew Docherty

Elsa Andron

Psychologue du travail et psychologue clinicienne

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