Work Burnout, Boredom, and ‘Boreout’

What workers call boredom could be something far more detrimental to themselves and their organizations, says best-selling author Dan Goleman. 

Daniel Goleman is author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence and of the forthcoming Optimal: How to Sustain Personal and Organizational Excellence Every Day. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

TikTok is seeing an increasing trend among all too many workers: #boredatwork. This one hashtag has over 200,000 videos attached to it, clips often using humor to expose the otherwise depressing culture of underwhelm in the workplace. Many of the clips are of people stirring the pot – workers engaged in small acts of mischief in an effort to disrupt the monotony of the workday.

At work, boredom has a bad reputation, mostly due to its connection with a laundry list of counterproductive behaviors, including “cyberloafing” (non-work-related internet browsing) and chronic fatigue. Some suggest that due to its known negative impact on focus, judgment, goal-directed planning, risk assessment, and emotional control, being bored at work is as dangerous, or perhaps even more dangerous, than being burnt out. Research from Korn Ferry finds that in many instances, boredom is one of the top reasons people look for a new job.

But here’s the thing: There’s burnout, there’s boredom, and then there’s what people call “boreout.” Though overlapping, each of these states has its own distinct flavor.

Burnout is a term coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s to describe a "state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life.” Today, the World Health Organization describes burnout as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” a state characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

Boredom is the feeling of being uninterested in what you're doing, or as some call it, “mentally idle.” Boredom—at any age and in any context—happens when we lack a sense of stimulation or challenge and makes us feel dull, restless, or even slightly apathetic.

Boreout is a state of chronic boredom. It’s more insidious than boredom alone due to an existential edge. Boreout is what happens when we are bored to the point that we feel work has absolutely no meaning. It’s what we feel when we believe our work doesn’t really have a purpose or a point. As with burnout and workaholism, studies link boreout to chronic mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.

Maybe workers aren’t just feeling bored—they might also be experiencing “boreout.” This doesn’t mean they aren’t busy (surely there are more than enough tasks and to-dos on everybody's list), but rather that they are too busy doing things in which they don’t see much point. These workers actually want to be engaged in something deeply satisfying or fulfilling – to put effort towards a task that aligns with our core values and sense of meaning in the world.

Many or most jobs involve carrying out the same tasks every day. According to one study, roughly 40% of our daily activities are performed each day in almost identical situations. For many, this repetition is a good thing. Routine is soothing to the brain – it’s in the predictability of repetition that we experience a certain degree of relaxation and psychological safety.

But when the routine is devoid of meaning, we have a real problem. Because humans aren’t wired only to like repetition; they are wired to want to feel their efforts are part of something bigger.

The answer to #boredatwork isn’t to focus on changing up what everyone is doing, but rather to ignite a bigger conversation around why they do it. This inquiry is what some researchers call the “bright side of boredom,” the pause or space boredom might offer to daydream and productively reflect on what we want and how we can engage with the world more creatively. That may be the upside of boredom, hopefully for many.

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon


Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.