I believe a monotonous work environment is the biggest threat to employee happiness and well-being.
“Workplace monotony has shown to adversely impact morale, performance and quality of work.” – quoting from Dr. Richard Thackray’s paper “The Stress of Boredom and Monotony”.
Dr. Thackray from the Washington DC Office of Aviation Medicine reported that “the combination of tasks that feel monotonous and lack meaning with deadline-driven roles and fast-paced work environments is a recipe for burnout”.
A Korn Ferry poll of “nearly 5,000 professionals claims that the top reason people look for a new job is boredom”.
What are the effects of prolonged boredom at work?
I’ll cite two research reports.
A 2014 study looked at more than 11,000 workers at 87 Finnish organizations. The research found that chronic boredom due to a monotonous work environment “increased the likelihood of employees’ turnover and early retirement intentions, poor self-rated health and stress symptoms”.
A 2021 study showed that 186 government workers in Turkey who suffered from boredom also dealt with depression, and high rates of stress and anxiety. Studies show depression from work monotony and boredom can follow workers outside the office, and lead to physical ailments from insomnia to headaches.
How do we fix boredom induced by a monotonous work environment?
“We need a shift in thinking about employee wellbeing merely in terms of stress and burnout” – Lotta Harju, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and a researcher in work and organizational psychology.
Not all jobs can be fun. We have people working in mechanical and repetitive job roles for years. If you ever commute by public transport, a bus or a shuttle, you could look at people’s faces on their way to work – most are synonyms of work-related stress and chronic boredom caused by a monotonous work environment.
There’s not much they can look forward to at work. I guess the origin of the phrase “clocking hours at work” can be credited to such monotonous workplaces. We don’t “clock hours” if we have fun in what we do.
So what’s the solution?
I’d say it starts with a good and considerate leadership to acknowledge and offer help.
We surely can automate whatever is possible to reduce manual repetitive tasks. But to break the monotony, we need to infuse work hours with byte-sized fun and engaging breaks.
Here are some ideas I’d recommend.
1. Introduce Play at work
In one of my previous articles, I emphasized on the many benefits of promoting play at work.
Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, states, “when employees have the opportunity to play, they actually increase their productivity, engagement and morale.”
Quoting Dr. Brown to underline the importance of play at work – “play at work can boost creativity and productivity in people of all ages. There is good evidence that if you allow employees to engage in something they want to do, (which) is playful, there are better outcomes in terms of productivity and motivation.”
Add some playfulness and physical play at work. Certainly one of the best ways to break the routine and recharge the mind, body and soul.
2. Make room for creativity
Every job role has some room for creativity. Every person has a creative and innovative self, hidden somewhere within the bored office worker.
Give them avenues to unleash the hidden creativity – employee engagement workshops such as group painting, pottery etc. Run contests within teams to improve the workplace and work design. Nominate employees to plan celebrations and theme days at work.
3. Unplanned, small breaks
Who doesn’t love a surprise snack party at work?
Get some sizzling hot samosas for the office gang. There has to be absolutely no reason to announce a mid-day samosa hangout session for everyone present in the room.
Ask people to drop whatever they are doing. Use the snack time for some fun yet motivational team bonding conversation.
4. An occasional change in the work setting
This may not be a practical solution for a few job roles such as a machine operator. However certainly a recommended idea for most employees.
Not a bad idea to take your entire team out to the nearby co-working space for a day – upscale work environment, unlimited coffee, high speed internet, play area.
How about working for a few hours from a coffee shop? Can you organize the next team meeting out in the open? The beach or the park?
Change in work setting = change in mood. Breaks the monotony.
5. Engage and socialize
Who is the most popular person in your team? Certainly someone who is an extrovert, outgoing person. Someone who finds it easy to mix with others and strike a conversation. Engagement and socializing comes easy to some.
Well, not true for all. Some find it rather difficult. They work in small, closed groups of office colleagues.
But the truth is – everyone likes to socialize.
Push the introverts. Not literally though.
Drag them, in a nice way, into participating in engagement activities at work. Appreciate them in an office meet or party and introduce them to employees from different functions. Help them network with more people at work.
6. The most important tip – Offer HELP
No matter how much you plan and actually execute, you cannot lift every soul from the pits of workplace monotony and boredom.
When work deadlines turn gloomy red, every fun and engagement activity takes a backseat. We throw ourselves and drag our teams into the work furnace and the speed of burnout intensifies.
This is the harsh reality of work. This is where we need to be watchful and considerate. Look for signs of stress and anxiety. Offer HELP.
Make it easy for employees to raise an alarm when they need help. Give them multiple channels to seek help, support and guidance. Don’t stigmatize stress and depression.
Monitor employee stress and well-being. Some may choose not to step forward and instead completely burn out. Reach out to them and offer help.
Put in the mechanisms to improve demand forecasting at your workplace. Maintain some buffer at work to allow for unplanned breaks. It takes time but you certainly can achieve the right balance between employee wellness and work deadlines.
It’s not an easy battle to win. We live and work in a competitive, deadline and metrics driven world. But the solution is not very complex.
We need to be watchful and considerate. Don’t be short-sighted. Do not let the metrics driven work culture blind your vision. The “RED” on employee wellness scorecards is much more harmful than the “RED” on weekly and monthly company dashboards.
Happiness at work breeds quality, productivity and success at work.
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