Boredom, Constant Cheer, Cynicism and Other Job Hazards

Jan 12, 2012 6:00am

Paul Spector was never as bored as the summer he spent after high school working in a contact lens factory. His job was cutting each contact lens out of a sheet of plastic.

“That was definitely really boring,” he said. “You’re just doing the same operation day after day.”

Now a professor studying industrial and occupational psychology at the University of South Florida, Spector said boredom is underappreciated as a workplace stressor, along with a host of other on-the-job strains that can drive people crazy. Often these stressors can be just as consuming as being overworked and overwhelmed.

“Being chronically bored means being unhappy and stressed,” said Paul Spector, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. “If you don’t have enough to do or what you do is monotonous, that can make you miserable, which can be very stressful.”

Being required to slap on a happy face, too, can be a strain for workers, such as those in the customer service industry. Researchers call this work emotional labor, and say that it frequently leads to burnout.

“Not only do you have the pressure of doing your job, but there’s pressure to make every customer feel valued and happy, which can be hard and really draining,” said Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist and author of the book “The Blame Game.”

A survey of 200 British customer service employees found that the effort of being constantly cheerful left these workers feeling emotionally exhausted and cynical.

The poor economy may compound workplace stress, as the prospect of a steady paycheck keeps people in jobs that don’t match their skills or interests.

“You have people with fairly high-level skills who can’t find jobs in their profession, so they wind up underemployed and bored,” Spector said.

Occasional boredom is unavoidable, of course, but the danger of chronic boredom lies in the unhealthy habits that workers tend to pick up to keep themselves entertained. Scientists at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain surveyed 100 British office workers and found that a quarter of them suffer from chronic boredom. How did they deal with the stress of monotony? Many reported turning to extra coffee breaks, chocolate binges or regular post-work alcohol to take the edge off.

That doesn’t surprise Martin Binks, chief executive officer of Binks Behavioral Health in Durham, N.C., who said people find all kinds of unhealthy ways to alleviate their boredom at work, like repeatedly hitting the snack and soda machines or taking frequent cigarette breaks.

Rather than downing a 400-calorie latte at the coffee shop, Binks suggests that when boredom strikes, workers can try switching to a different task, taking a quick walk or even making trips to the bathroom to wash your hands or face.

“Repeated bathroom visits are better than repeated snack machine visits,” he said.

Employees who find themselves busy and bored all at once may need a more long-term solution. Dattner said people who are bored with their work should consider talking with their employer about expanding or changing their role on the job or asking for more training.

“It may help to think about a more effective or efficient way to do what you’re doing,” Dattner said. “To some extent, making yourself obsolete by coming up with a process improvement could be risky but, on the other hand, might earn you the gratitude of the organization or superiors.”

Experts say certain methods of stress relief should be avoided at all costs: Creating drama with coworkers, taking long lunches or spending too much time on Facebook or YouTube are usually not good ideas.

Of course, it’s important for employers and employees to try to ensure that the job fits the worker in the first place.

“If someone just doesn’t have the personality to be happy all the time, maybe they shouldn’t be in customer service,” Spector said. “Then you won’t be under any pressure to be happy all day.”

If all else fails, bored or stessed-out employees can look for this silver lining: You have a job.

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