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Yawn: A dull job can be bad for your mental health

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Boredom at work can lead to frustration and depression. (Photo by Gabriele Steinhauser)

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Boredom at work can lead to frustration and depression. (Photo by Gabriele Steinhauser)

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Boredom at work can lead to frustration and depression. (Photo by Gabriele Steinhauser)

When Mike, a 31-year-old engineer in New York City, started his job at a major television news Web site in 2006, he was relieved to finally have some free time at work. At his previous job, Mike had worked 12-hour days, was often on call seven days a week and rarely had a spare moment.

But the freedom soon began to feel oppressive. Surfing the Internet endlessly got boring, and while others in the company were being laid off, Mike’s boss seemed happy with his performance. Although Mike has repeatedly asked for additional tasks, he rarely receives any.

When he started watching entire seasons of television shows on his computer because he had finished everything for the week, Mike’s frustration escalated. At night he feels drained and exhausted though he has done little actual work during the day.

“I don’t do anything to validate my day sometimes,” Mike said in a recent interview via an online chat from his office. “I feel like I’m not worth anything here, and that in itself stresses me out.” Fearing negative career repercussions, he asked that only his first name be used.

Mike might be suffering from "boreout," a condition coined by Philippe Rothlin and Peter Werder, two Swiss business consultants who recently wrote a book on work-related boredom. In a society where a person's job often defines an important part of his or her identity, they say that someone who isn't challenged at work can soon feel worthless and frustrated.

Their book, "Boreout: Overcoming Workplace Demotivation," was a bestseller in Europe last year and will appear in the United States in September. In it, Rothlin and Werder write about people who have too little work or lack stimulation from their jobs. Yet, instead of rejoicing at the abundance of free time, they argue, bored workers grow disinterested, exhausted and even depressed.

“One might easily call them lazy,” explained Rothlin, “but that’s not true. People suffering from boreout want to do something. They want to work, but their company won’t let them.”

More workers are underutilized than their bosses may realize. In a survey conducted last summer by Salary.com, a Web-based company that advises employers on compensation levels, more than 60 percent of the 2,057 participants admitted to wasting time at work, with the average employee spending one hour and 42 minutes of a 8.5-hour day doing things unrelated to the job. Boredom and lack of work were the leading reasons given for wasting time.

The lack of challenge can quickly become maddening. “I could feel my hair growing,” said Beth, a woman in her 40s who asked that only her middle name be used. “You feel like your mind is rotting.”

Beth took a newly created position at a New York media company two years ago and within a week realized that her bosses didn’t really know how to utilize her skills. “There literally wasn’t anything for me to do,” she said in a recent interview. Instead, Beth spent a lot of her day online, reading the news and researching the company in an attempt to do something useful with her time.

Quitting the job was not an option as she depended on her paycheck to support her family. Beth grew increasingly depressed. “It’s this sense of time standing still or going backwards,” she recalled. “I did feel really hopeless.”

It’s a situation that Lance, a 23-year-old architecture trainee from New Jersey, knows all too well. When he started his practical training at a small architecture firm last summer, he was excited to finally try out his creativity in real-life projects.

Instead, he is typically assigned mundane tasks like drawing detailed studies of door jams, and he soon began to dread going to work. His lunch and coffee breaks have gotten longer, and he frequently avoids work by watching videos on YouTube and chatting with friends online.

“I’m not getting to do the stuff that I spent five years in school to be doing,” he said in a recent interview after yet another long, dull day at work.

While some boredom at work is simply the byproduct of menial tasks, it often results from bad leadership and management, said Jonathan Halbesleben, an assistant professor of management and marketing at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, who has been researching burnout for the past six years. Boreout, he argued, is not necessarily the opposite of burnout. “Instead of being stressed out because you have too much to do,” he explained, “you get stressed out because you have nothing to do.” In fact, Halbesleben believes, boreout might actually lead to burnout.

Rothlin and Werder link boreout to the growing importance of the service sector in most industrialized countries. Where there’s a desk, a computer, a telephone and a hazily defined project, it’s easy to get distracted from a monotonous task. “A brick layer cannot just pretend to be building a wall,” said Rothlin.

Since their book was published in Switzerland and Germany last spring, the consultants have received hundreds of e-mails and comments on their online forum from employees relieved that somebody had finally recognized their situation. They have also given workshops at investment banks and government offices to encourage workers to become proactive and propose their own projects to supervisors, thus creating more interesting tasks for themselves.

That’s what Beth did. After many unsuccessful attempts, she finally got through to her bosses and now has responsibilities that keep her busy most of the time.

When that strategy doesn’t work, the consultants concede the best advice may be to find a new job. That’s one of the options Lance is considering. “I really don’t see myself being at this firm much longer,” he said.

E-mail: gks2113@columbia.edu