Having lots of time on your hands at work may sound appealing. You could watch YouTube videos for hours and file your nails instead of rushing from meeting to meeting or struggling to meet deadlines. But just as chronic overwork can cause burnout, so too can chronic underwork cause “boreout.”
People with boreout syndrome have many of the same symptoms as those with burnout syndrome. They feel drained, listless and empty. Paradoxically, boreout is quite stressful, particularly when you try to appear busy so that you’re not saddled with additional tedious tasks, or to give the impression that you’re really immersed in important work.
“Not doing anything meaningful means [in your mind] that you yourself are meaningless,” says business psychologist Andreas Hemsing, noting that many people have a strong need to perform meaningful work – and to do it well.
Having the notion that “if you don’t perform, you’ll lose your place in society” has health effects, he goes on. “It’s been clear for many years that feeling empty inside is emotionally damaging,” Hemsing says. You’re not only bored and uninterested, but also discontented, frustrated and on edge.
And these feelings aren’t confined to the workplace. “Boreout really shows its nasty character after work,” remarks Peter R. Werder, who, together with fellow Swiss business consultant Philippe Rothlin, introduced the term in 2007 in a book whose German title translates as “Underworked: Diagnosis Boreout – When Boredom Makes You Ill.”
You can’t simply switch off the feelings like a lamp when you leave the office. A lot of people don’t realize that the malaise, listlessness, irritability, tiredness and withdrawal they feel
in the evening they may be connected to their work.
“Many boreout sufferers quit their job emotionally at some point and develop a kind of resigned acceptance of their working conditions,” says Dirk Windemuth, director of the Institute for Work and Health at the DGUV (German Social Accident Insurance), the umbrella association of workers’ compensation insurers for both the private industrial and public sectors.
In other words, they know their job is actually crap but tell themselves, “It’s OK. I don’t have any problems: I get regular holidays and make good money.”
But they’re only fooling themselves, which in the long run doesn’t work. Instead of playing down the job’s shortcomings, it’s better to change things, Windemuth says.
This is possible only by being honest with yourself and conveying your concerns to your boss. “Address the issue, change your duties within the company, get further training or leave your job. These are your options, none of which is very easy,” Werder says, especially because you’ve likely been doing your current work for quite some time.
“You could tell your boss something like, ‘I’d like to do something else now and then, for which I need further training.’ Or, ‘I’d like to remain with the company, but can I work in a different department?’”
Job rotation, in which workers’ activities change hourly or daily, can help, according to Windemuth. Or you could try to expand your responsibilities, for example by taking on tasks that either precede or succeed your current ones in the work process.
Hemsing recommends reducing your emotional attachment to your job “to offset the monotony and nourish your self-esteem with something other than your work.” It could be a hobby, learning a foreign language, travelling, a sport activity or volunteer work, for instance.