Bored to death: What is boreout syndrome?

The under-recognized condition affects workers in offices across the globe.

Illustration of a tired-looking man typing on a keyboard in an office
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  • Boreout syndrome is akin to burnout syndrome, but rather than arising from an excess of challenging work, it arises from a surfeit of it.
  • Many would scoff at the idea that not having enough work to do would be anything to complain about, but boreout can have some serious impacts on your physical and mental health.
  • One man was so distressed about his boreout that he sued his employer, claiming that he had been deliberately put in a meaningless position.

You've been refreshing Reddit for the past hour, mindlessly scrolling through images of dogs and cats apparently having a significantly more engaging time than you are. You finished your tasks for the day in the first hour, and now you've got to figure out how to kill seven more. You could ask your manager for more tasks, but this happens so often, what if they start thinking that they don't need a full-time employee in your position? No, better to just wait for somebody to give you something to do. But having nothing to do is intolerable, because buzzing underneath the pervasive sense of boredom you're feeling is a low-level anxiety over whether somebody is going to discover your lack of activity.

This experience was what caused Frédéric Desnard to sue his former employer for €360,000 (roughly $400,000) after he had been mis au placard, or "put in the cupboard." The English equivalent of this term is to send an undesirable employee to the so-called "banishment room," a department so meaningless and unpleasant that the employee eventually quits, saving the manager from having to fire them. Desnard claimed that the stress of having no work to do sent him into an epileptic fit once while driving. He described it as "a descent into hell."

"I was ashamed of being paid for doing nothing," he said.

Desnard lost his suit, as it became apparent that the lawsuit was borne more out of spite than for any actual damages his employer had caused, but the suit alluded to a very real condition: boreout syndrome.

Bored out of your mind at work? Your brain is trying to tell you something. | Dan Cable

Where burnout syndrome results from overwork and an inability to manage excessive workplace stress, boreout comes about due to a lack of an adequate number of tasks or adequately challenging tasks. While complaining about not having enough work to do may inspire envy in some overworked employees, boreout can be equally distressing as burnout. And both conditions hurt employer and employee alike.

Bored-out individuals also tend to have lower job satisfaction. One study found that employees with monotonous jobs had significantly greater risk for heart attacks. Another conducted on over 7,500 British civil servants found that frequently bored individuals were between two and three times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease. While the stress associated with boredom may play a role, the researchers believe this is more due to the unhealthy habits that the chronically bored turn to as a means of making their life more interesting, like drinking and smoking.

One might think that a worker bored to tears would jump at the opportunity to get a task done and done well, but bored-out individuals actually have worse job performance and make more errors. And of course, in order to avoid engaging with the source of their boredom, bored-out individuals have higher absenteeism.

Clearly, boreout is something that we want to avoid, both as employees and employers. In Diagnose Boreout, the book which first described the syndrome, Swiss business consultants Peter Werdner and Philippe Rothin laid out methods for avoiding the condition. Employers can make an effort to distribute challenging, non-repetitive tasks to their employees. They can also ensure that their employees can talk to them about needing a new task or role without the fear of being laid off. Ultimately, however, the responsibility of ending boreout lies with the employee — they have to find a way to make their work meaningful or, failing that, find a new job that has a better chance of keeping them satisfied. Often, the risk and potential loss of income prevents dissatisfied employees from switching jobs. But it's important to remember that not switching your job when it's boring you to tears doesn't actually avoid any costs; it just transforms a financial cost into a cost to your mental and physical health.


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