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Why boredom at work may not be all bad after all

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Why boredom at work may not be all bad after all

By Grace Park, Lim Beng Chong and Janet Loh
 

“I am bored!” “This piece of work is so boring.” Many of us at work are familiar with these sentiments expressed by colleagues at work. Indeed, some companies like Google Singapore and Zappos have gone out of their way to let their employees have fun at work. Benefits associated with fun at work include greater job satisfaction, engagement, and commitment. In some cases, it may even promote creativity and innovation.

While having fun at work may be beneficial to both companies and employees, a less frequently asked question is “is boredom at work really all bad?”

While feeling bored is one of the most prevalent emotions experienced by many of us, it is not very well understood scientifically. We often mix up feeling bored with other emotions such as anger and frustration. While feeling bored may lead to frustration, boredom is a distinct emotion experienced by many of us.

To deepen the understanding of boredom and its effects on creative performance, a study “Why boredom might not be a bad thing after all” by Guihyun Park and Hui Si Oh of Singapore Management University and Beng-Chong Lim of Nanyang Technological University was conducted and its findings published in Academy of Management Discoveries recently. Specifically, 101 participants were randomly assigned to two conditions. In the boredom condition, participants were asked to sort a bowl of green and red beans by colour for 30 minutes with only one hand while the participants in the control condition were asked to work on an art project using paper, beans, and glue.

After that, participants in both conditions were asked to take part in an idea-generation task.

This research on boredom has two important findings. Firstly, two independent assessors were asked to rate the uniqueness of the ideas generated by both groups based on a five-point scale ranging from one to five, with five being extremely unique. The assessors found that participants in the boredom condition came up with more creative ideas than those in the control condition on the idea-generation task.

Hence, boredom helped boost individual productivity on the task. Productivity is based on the number of ideas generated.

Secondly, boredom significantly increased creativity only in individuals with specific personality traits – including intellectual curiosity, high cognitive drive, openness to new experience and an inclination toward learning.

In other words, as an unpleasant emotion, boredom pushes people to change and do something simulating that involves variety and novelty.

If managers and business leaders know how to harness bored employees’ desire for variety and novelty, the outcome for the organisation may not be all negative. Managers and organisations should be more nuanced in how they manage boredom in the work environment.

Firstly, stop thinking that boredom is all bad and bored employees are not good for business or performance. This is not true. So start thinking positively about boredom.

Secondly, get to know your people. Everyone can get bored at work but not all individuals will benefit equally from being bored. Hence as business leaders and managers, you need to know your people well in order to reap the benefits of bored employees. As mentioned earlier, only employees who are higher on intellectual curiosity, cognitive drive, openness to new experience, and an inclination toward learning will likely deliver better outcomes on novel challenging tasks when they feel bored.

Thirdly, be cognizant of the nature of the work process and how work is done. Being aware of the work flow allows you to identify the “moments of boredom” that may be experienced by your employees. Armed with this useful information, you can then aptly schedule and allocate the types of work to certain individuals to fully optimize the work performance of your team.

Although counterintuitive, having fun and being bored are not in conflict. Both emotions can motivate employees to be more productive. It is really up to the business leaders and managers to harness these untapped resources for the benefits of the organisation.

About the author

Dr. Grace Park is an Associate Professor in Psychology at Australian National University while Dr. Lim Beng Chong is an Associate Professor in Strategy, Management, and Organisation at the Nanyang Business School of the Nanyang Technological University, where Janet Loh heads the College Communications.

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