Boredom Numbs the Work World

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

When Bruce Bartlett was the deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury under George H.W. Bush, boredom occasionally drove him from his cushy Washington office to seek relief at the movie theater. One afternoon, he ran into a friend who was a senior official in another department.

"It was kind of awkward," he said.

Bartlett had a secretary, staff, an important-sounding job and the paycheck to go with it. But, like many workers, he found himself underemployed and bored out of his mind.

"There is a reason why prison is considered punishment," Bartlett said, comparing it to his former job. "You may be in a gilded cage, but if you're just forced to sit there for eight hours all day long, staring at the wall, it can be excruciating."

Be it at a desk at the Treasury Department, a spot on the factory floor, or a drab blue cubicle, boredom is a condition that can be more stressful and damaging than overwork, according to those who have studied the issue.

"We know that 55 percent of all U.S. employees are not engaged at work. They are basically in a holding pattern. They feel like their capabilities aren't being tapped into and utilized and therefore, they really don't have a psychological connection to the organization," said Curt W. Coffman, global practice leader at the Gallup Organization, whose large polling group measured employee engagement.

Bartlett's problem was that he was deputy assistant secretary for economic policy when the president "just didn't care about economic policy, only foreign policy. . . . Because the White House didn't want to do anything, there wasn't anything we could do," he said.

That problem -- a lack of autonomy and a job that has very specific instructions -- hits workers from the highest to lowest echelons of the working world. Many spend their days surfing the Internet, writing e-mails or taking care of personal business.

Bartlett spent his days writing for academic journals. Boredom has a permanent seat in many workplaces, no matter the level of employee. And people are miserable.

Kristina Henry started her career as a government contractor in the early 1990s. Her job left her so stressed, that she started grinding her teeth and was constantly looking for new work. And that stress came from the fact she had nothing to do.

"It was like Dilbert," she said. "I learned a lot about FAA regs and flight rules. And I learned a lot of acronyms. . . . . A lot of times it was just tedious, and I was thinking, I can't believe I'm here and being paid for this."

So how did she and her co-workers cope? Occasionally, they too sneaked out to movies and to museums. And she brought a copy of "War and Peace" to work. She finished it in two weeks.

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