Are you boring your employees into leaving?

Attention spans are shortening, jobs becoming more repetitive, and boredom is rife. Should HR be worried?

It sounds like the plot of a French art house rom-com. Frédéric Desnard works at a Parisian perfume company but has so little to do he becomes stressed and exhausted. As he’s stripped of managerial duties and given only mind-numbingly dull tasks, he becomes convinced his company’s aim is to bore him to death so they can fire him without compensation. Step in a shy but quirkily pretty colleague to help hatch a plan…

Alas this last part is indeed pure fiction. But the rest is completely true. Desnard then demanded €360,000 (£300,000) from Interparfums for “bore-out,” which he claims lead to “epilepsy, ulcers, sleep problems and serious depression”.

But is ‘bore-out’ real? And how seriously do UK PLC need to take it? Pretty seriously, many suggest. Engagement levels at work have remained stubbornly low for some time. And experts argue the problem is getting worse. Earlier this year data showed one in five graduates are now in low- to medium-skilled work, and last year the CIPD revealed a shocking 58.8% of grads hold ‘non-graduate’ jobs – a situation that dramatically decreases the chance they’ll feel suitably stretched.

So is it employers’ responsibility to provide interesting or stimulating work, rather than just ‘a job’? Legally employers are only required to provide a ‘safe’ place for people to work. But this overlooks the huge importance of staff motivation levels to an organisation’s success, according to Mark Batey, senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Manchester Business School. “Firms wanting to maximise profit should know enthusiastic staff work harder,” he says.

“The problem with boredom is that it’s difficult to define,” he continues. “For some that like routine so-called boring jobs are not boring at all, while others would see it as their idea of hell.” What this indicates, he says, is that employers should at least shoulder some responsibility to match the right people to the right role.

Where things get even trickier for employers is the growing body of evidence linking boredom to stress, anxiety and wellbeing. Some may recall librarians famously being branded as the UK’s most stressed workers in 2006, precisely because their role was indoors, repetitive and uninspiring. And yet for these sorts of roles is there anything HRDs can really do?

“Boredom is a societal problem as much as an employer’s,” says Middlesex University senior lecturer Elizabeth Cotton, who runs the Surviving Work project – recordings of people’s work experiences. “People were told that if they studied they’d get good jobs... [But] we’ve gone back 30 years in terms of dumbing down jobs – giving people crib sheets in call centres rather than letting them be themselves.”

Cotton argues being open about what a role really entails rather than overselling it is a good first step. She accepts that opportunity to be autonomous is limited in some roles. But bosses should try to encourage this where they can, so giving autonomy to baristas about how they interact with customers for example.

Firms are attempting to acknowledge that boredom is something they need to look at – some more dramatically than others. In 2012, Thomsons Online Benefits let a group of its office-bound IT coders work from Whistler, Canada for the whole ski season and found their productivity rose 25%. Atos has incorporated gamification in its call centres to inject immediate rewards.

“It is vital for employees to have meaningful interactions in the workplace, rather than feeling part of an impersonal conglomerate,” says Candida Mottershead, Accenture’s UK and Ireland HRD. “We have more than 50 virtual clubs and societies available to likeminded people. These give staff the chance to pick up a new skill or enjoy some social time with colleagues.”

For others eradicating boredom is about offering empowerment. At The British Quality Foundation CEO Russell Longmuir is trialing new app Totem – a Whatsapp-style platform that staff use to update colleagues on what they’re doing. “We’re trying to say to people that work is more than just your job; it’s about being your whole person,” says Longmuir. “We want people to break out of their boundaries and enjoy work.”

Claire Penson is head of people and compliance at contact centre business Love Energy Savings, which was crowned Best SME to Work for in 2016. That accolade is the result of the firm taking boredom extremely seriously, says Penson.

“We know boredom has a detrimental effect on people’s mental and physical health, creates disengagement and a pessimistic mindset,” she says. “So we strive to create variety. As well as a dedicated team that looks into running events and fundraising activities we’ve created a graffiti wall, a sweetie room, and we give out on-the-spot vouchers for great customer service. We try to work to a ‘little but often’ approach to creating fun.”

For some HR can be responsible for creating boredom at work. “I’m quite critical of employers hiring people for what they see in them two to three years down the line,” argues Jennifer Moss, author of Unlocking Happiness at Work. “All this does is create boredom in the present; as people are put into holding pen jobs while they ‘wait’.” She adds: “What this also does is create the expectation employers are responsible for people’s happiness. Boredom is a two-way street.”

A dark cloud on the horizon is the hyper-stimulated always-on millennial generation as they enter the world of work. “I predict a massive shift to more freelancing and gig-style working if organisations don’t create better, more interesting ways of working,” says Moss.

To do this life coach Janice Haddon says managers and HRDs should focus on designing people’s job roles so that they feel challenged. “It’s often forgotten that boredom isn’t about a lack of activity, but a lack of stretch,” she argues. “The brain is a muscle, it needs to be stretched.”

The trend towards creating more ‘holacratic’ workplaces, where employees self-organise, and feel more empowered about the development of their roles and type of work done, will help to address this, says Batey. “While we must all accept there is some boredom, the key challenge is eliminating the drudgery – that’s what affects people’s wellbeing,” he says.