Repetitive tasks over many years could be soothing to some people—and a horrible bore to others. In some cases, it’s both. There’s comfort in doing work you have fully mastered, and that comfort makes you feel secure, but then there is the boredom that sets in as you find yourself falling asleep doing work you have done on auto-pilot for years.
I saw an article last week, “Why ‘boreout’ is on the rise in the workplace,” published by Yahoo Finance. “Employee boredom is a growing workplace problem. First coined by Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin in their 2007 book of the same name, early symptoms of boreout include demotivation, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and low mood. Over time, this can lead to chronic stress, low self-esteem, and even physical illness… According to Werder and Rothlin, the problem has been on the rise for many years. Without feeling challenged at work—and because of repetitive and monotonous tasks—employees give up and struggle with what is effectively the opposite of workplace burnout,” writer Lydia Smith explains.
As I have written previously in this blog, I don’t enjoy seemingly insurmountable challenges, particularly those that carry risk. I might enjoy learning a new design and layout system for a print publication, in other words, but not on a sink-or-swim basis in which I am thrown into it on my own and forced to learn it—and use it—within a few days. On the other hand, learning the new program could be enjoyable if I had a person who was already well versed in it working with me for the first month after my training.
When finding “new challenges” for employees, you can offset the stress and discomfort of learning new skills by having another employee, who is already expert in the skill, working alongside the employee who is just learning it, until that employee gains proficiency.
When new challenges are thrusted onto employees without the proper support, they become new stressors. That’s when an employee might choose boreout over the new challenge—even if that choice ultimately leads to disengagement.
The question becomes how to keep employees stimulated while keeping their stress levels low. In addition to working with more experienced employees as new skills are learned, cross-training can help. If many employees are cross-trained to do a variety of tasks, there is always someone nearby who can answer a question in a just-in-time, in-the-moment manner. Another idea is to offer a safety net when new challenges and responsibilities are assigned to an employee. That means taking the newness of the task into consideration in performance reviews, so that when mistakes occur in the first few months of implementing a new skill, the mistakes are interpreted as part of the learning process rather than sloppy work.
Getting to work with new people can be another way of keeping an employee engaged. That might mean pulling in a person from another department in the company to offer expertise on a project, or having two work groups that have never collaborated before join together to reach a new goal. Like new challenges, bringing people together who have never worked together before can be just as stressful as stimulating if managers don’t think first about potential personality conflicts. If the two leads from each department don’t mesh well together, the project will be doomed to fail. For example, managers would want to avoid situations in which one lead employee was known to be high-energy and aggressive while the other was known to be quiet and more laidback. The more aggressive employee may get frustrated with the more laidback employee for seeming too passive and unenthusiastic, while the more laidback employee may feel steamrollered by the more aggressive employee.
Offering an “escape hatch” for new challenges and projects also helps make these activities more stimulating than stressful. That means taking a “let’s see how it goes” approach, rather than a “this is a new responsibility you will be taking on; here is when you will start doing it” approach. The manager could talk in terms of the new task or project being a new opportunity, gauging the employee’s level of interest and excitement. Then, the manager could add: “Let’s try this out for a month or so, and see how it goes. I’ll check in with you every week to see how it’s going, and if you have any concerns at all, we’ll see if those concerns can be addressed, or if this new task just isn’t for you.”
Giving employees the safety to explore takes the risk out of escaping from boredom—which is what both you and your employees should want. After all, who wants employees who feel forced to choose between boredom and high anxiety?
How do you keep employees feeling both secure and in control, as well as stimulated and engaged in their work?