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Boredom Numbs the Work World
Lack of Stimulation Infects Humble and High-Ranking Jobs Alike

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.

Although workers may dream of days surfing the Internet with nothing to do, the busiest employees are the happiest, according to a survey by Sirota Consulting LLC. Of more than 800,000 employees at 61 organizations worldwide, those with "too little work" gave an overall job satisfaction rating of 49 out of 100, while those with "too much work" had a rating of 57.

"Those who are saying their workload is heavier rather than lighter are more positive," said Jeffrey M. Saltzman, chief executive of Sirota. "When you say you have too much work to do, other things are happening in your head: 'I'm valued by the organization. They're giving me responsibility.' That's better than being in the other place where you say I'm not of value in this place."

Boredom is "one of the biggest contributors to work-related stress," said Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist who runs the Center for Adult Development in Washington. The less someone works at work, the more pressure they feel.

Jean Martin-Weinstein, managing director of the Corporate Leadership Council, a division of the Corporate Executive Board Co., cited findings from a survey of 50,000 workers around the world who were asked questions such as: "Do you love your job? Do you love your team? Are you excited by the work you do every day?"

Thirteen percent came out saying no, no, very much no.

"They are disaffected, because they are basically completely checked out from the work they do," Martin-Weinstein said.

Employers suffer when employees are bored, as well.

"It casts a pall on the whole organization and can create a demoralized atmosphere," LaBier said. "It blocks creativity, which can undermine any company, which can keep it from staying abreast of the marketplace, competition. When you have that boredom, that can produce a kind of pervasive cloud. It can build like a critical mass that hurts the company's performance and market position."

And in jobs where safety is at stake, boredom can be dangerous.

The Transportation Safety Administration, which is charged with employing and training workers at airports, rotates its screeners every half hour or so, which "allows them to stay sharp and keenly focused," according to Yolanda Clark, TSA spokeswoman. "We want eagle eyes at each of those posts."

A worker may go from an X-ray machine to a position checking boarding passes, and then change environments completely, to the baggage screening area. Duty changes throughout the day keep the employees intent on the job at hand. "We like to say there's never a dull day at TSA," Clark said.

But for many workers, a shift change every 30 minutes is a mere dream. For them, the only remedy to combat boredom may be to find new work.

Henry, for instance, left the federal aviation world to join alumni affairs at Washington College. She now is a marketing and development coordinator for a small museum near Annapolis. She also writes children's books.

And today, Bartlett is busier than he ever has been as an economist with the National Center for Policy Analysis. "I'm constantly working," he said. "The day goes by so rapidly, it's absolutely amazing to me."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company