That Boring Job Should Sound an Alarm


Section: Career Couch

February 17, 2008

Phyllis Korkki -

Q. When you get up in the morning, you never want to go to work. Your job is repetitive, uninteresting and offers no challenges. When you are there, the clock barely moves, and you can't wait to leave.

In short, you are bored. What is to be done?

A. People who are bored need to create more challenges and find more meaning in their work lives. They need to find a way out of the feeling that "there's nothing to do, they're forced to do things they don't want to do, or they don't know what they want to do," said John D. Eastwood, an associate psychology professor at York University in Toronto who has studied boredom.

Over all, boredom is a state of "being disengaged from one's environment," he said, and it reflects a passive relationship to one's work.

Q. What are common symptoms of boredom?

A. A telltale sign is that time seems to pass very slowly, Professor Eastwood said. This can be accompanied by difficulty concentrating and feelings of depletion and lethargy. Low-energy states may alternate with feelings of agitation and irritability as the sufferer struggles to find some kind of engagement, he said.

Q. Are some people more prone to boredom than others?

A. Boredom tends to afflict people who have a high need for stimulation, Professor Eastwood said. People who have a hard time understanding or labeling their emotions are also vulnerable, because emotions give us the "compass points" that can lead us toward meaningful activities, he said.

Boredom may also be a mask for anger, he said, citing a quotation sometimes attributed to Paul Tillich that boredom is "rage spread thin."

If someone has sacrificed an important life goal, boredom may be an outward sign of "anger toward the self and the world" for not having been able to pursue it, he said.

Q. Is there a difference between feeling burned out and feeling bored?

A. Yes. Burnout is characterized by fear, stress and exhaustion, said Marcia L. Worthing, co-author of "Escape the Mid-Career Doldrums" (Wiley). Bored people might actually be able to use a little more stress in their lives, she said.

Q. Is your job making you bored, or are you at the root of the problem?

A. It could be either or a combination of both, and determining the answer is crucial. Nina Ham, a psychotherapist and a career coach in Berkeley, Calif., says it is important to see boredom as a "call to action."

If you are reacting to the rest of your life the way you react to your job, it might be time to see a therapist and treat an underlying problem like depression, she said.

But if the rest of your life is going well, you may be a poor match for your job or your industry. Or you may have outgrown your job, which is why boredom often hits people in mid-career, Ms. Ham said.

"If you're changing," she said, "why not expect that what you want from a job is going to change?"

Q. Can you be bored and still be competent in your work?

A. "Sometimes your very success can lead to boredom," said Rachelle J. Canter, a career coach based in San Francisco and author of "Make the Right Career Move" (Wiley).

"If you continue to do the same thing again and again, and you're good at it, people are going to keep asking you to do that one thing," she explained. That may be fine as far as your boss and the company are concerned, but it means that you may be unfulfilled and that "your professional skills are declining over time," she said.

It is easy to become stuck in a situation like this and even to blame your boss, she said, but only you are in charge of your career growth and career happiness. Your boss's job is to get the job done.

Q. What can you do to cure boredom at work?

A. Recognize that you need to feel challenged as an employee and that you may need to take the initiative to create challenges for yourself.

First, see if there are ways to make changes in your current job. Go to your boss, Ms. Canter said, and volunteer to take on a project. "Everyone loves a volunteer," she said. Identify gaps in your experience and skills, and work with your boss to find projects where you can use those skills to help the company.

Try taking more interest in what your colleagues are doing, Ms. Ham said. These interactions may lead to new opportunities within the company.

Some people have a knack for finding challenges in the most tedious of tasks - for example, by setting some kind of difficult quota.

But for others, a job is just irremediably boring. If that's the case, at the very least "figure out how you can make your life outside the job more interesting - don't be bored in both places," Ms. Worthing said.

If, after three months to a year of serious effort to make changes in your current job, you find that you are still bored, it may be time to look for a new job, Ms. Ham said.

Sending out résumés and networking can be invigorating, Ms. Canter said."Even if you don't have your next job in your sights," she said, "the very fact that you're in motion, working on your future, instead of complaining about your present, you're energized, and you stop feeling so bored."

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