Recently, many articles have been written about Boreout: the phenomenon of people who are so bored at their jobs that they start feeling sick. According to researchers, the symptoms of boreout syndrome may include: “depression, listlessness and insomnia, but also tinnitus, susceptibility to infection, stomach upset, headache and dizziness.”
In some ways the Boreout is similar to its cousin the Burnout, but it may even be worse. Because perhaps an employee who feels burned-out may recover after taking some vacations or reducing the workload. But in the case of Boreout the solution is probably to find a new job.
An employee who feels bored-out is not likely to be selected for promotion or to be transferred to a more interesting project. The managers can immediately identify a person who is disengaged and has poor performance. So at the moment the employee feels bored-out, it’s probably already too late to find him a new position in the company he is working for.
In this article I will discuss several aspects related to Boreout, including the need for realistic expectations, the main drivers of motivation and the Flow theory. This article is also inspired by several classes I had at ThePowerMBA that emphasize the importance of employee wellbeing.
On Realistic Expectations
I believe that Boreout is a concrete problem that should be addressed by employers. However I also think that nowadays lots of people have unrealistic expectations about the amount of pleasure they can derive from their jobs. In other words, I believe that too many employees expect that their jobs should be the main source of meaning in their lives, and even happiness.
I think that people should have realistic expectations. In general, I don’t think it is always possible to follow our passion when we choose our career. And I certainly don’t believe that people should have fun at their jobs, or that their co-workers should also be their best friends. As I wrote in a previous article, frustration is caused by the gap between our expectations and our reality, so that to avoid frustrations we should make sure that our expectations are realistic.
So what would be these realistic expectations? In my opinion most people should expect that, in any job, they will have to do hard work, and at least part of the time they will be forced to perform tasks that they don’t really like. After all, if someone is being paid to work, it’s because this work is difficult and demanding. In general people are not going to be paid to do things that are fun and enjoyable.
Sources of Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose
The good news is that it is possible to be happy in our jobs even if they are difficult and demanding. The best-selling author Daniel Pink, in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, presents the three necessary ingredients to guarantee that employees are motivated to perform their jobs: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Autonomy means that people should have some level of control about how they perform their jobs. In other words, workplaces should avoid having strict rules and allow employees to have some freedom. This is reflected very well in a quote by Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Mastery is the feeling that we are acquiring new skills, learning new subjects and developing our potential. In other words, employees should be able to grow while performing their jobs. At the same time that we are executing work-related tasks, we should feel that we are improving our capacity to perform these tasks.
Purpose is achieved when employees understand the importance of their work, and believe that they are contributing significantly to reach their project’s goals. In general a true feeling of purpose requires the employees to identify with the company’s vision and mission statements. We can only be really engaged and motivated when we feel part of something bigger.
It is important to notice that the Purpose factor is not necessarily related to a person individual’s passion. It’s possible for an employee to be fully engaged and find purpose in one’s job even if this job does not contribute to this particular person’s passion. For example a person may find purpose as a lawyer even if this person’s passion was to be a musician.
Flow: Skills and Challenge
The Theory of Flow was proposed by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, author of the best-selling book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”.
Flow “is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” When a person reaches a state of Flow, this person becomes completely absorbed in the activity that is being performed. This concentration is so intense that this person may lose the sense of time and become oblivious to the world.
According to the Flow theory, a person becomes fully engaged with a task if there is a match between this person’s abilities and the complexity of the task. As depicted in the graph on the right, when the person is skilled but the challenge is low the activity is considered boring. In contrast, when we are skilled and the challenge is high, this can bring us to a state of arousal.
In other words, the proper balance between our skills and the challenges we are facing enable us to reach an optimal performance. The consequences are self improvement, continuous learning and an increased sense of satisfaction and achievement. When we reach such a state we feel completely in control of our actions, and we are certainly not bored by our tasks.
Again, it is important to note that the state of Flow is not necessarily related to an individual’s passion. A person may be extremely skilled in performing his job, such as the case of a surgeon or a programmer, even if this person’s professional choice was mostly pragmatic, with the goal to be remunerated by the work being performed. The surgeon’s passion may be playing the saxophone while the programmer’s passion is gardening.
The Third Space Theory
As we discussed above, passion is not necessary for us to feel motivated to perform our job. We must have Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, but the job’s purpose does not need to be related to our individual’s passion. We also observed that passion is not required to reach a state of Flow, we only need the right balance between the Challenge and our Skills.
So the question is: Should we forget about our passion? Can we be fully satisfied as a person if we are successful in our jobs, and have fulfilling relationships with our family and friends? Should the professional achievements in our careers replace the need to follow our passion?
In my opinion, if our profession is not related to our passion, we should find a way to perform other activities that contribute to our sense of meaning. In other words, if we are not able to follow our passion in the workplace, we should find a different space to do that.
According to the Third Space Theory, “one space is the domestic sphere: the family and the home; a second space is the sphere of civic engagement including school, work and other forms of public participation; and set against these is a Third Space where individual, sometimes professional, and sometimes transgressive acts are played out: where people let their “real” selves show.”
Most people certainly have their First Space (their family) and also a Second Space (their workplace) but they do not have a Third Space to express themselves. Therefore these people make the mistake to believe that they should try to follow their passion in their Second Space, and become very frustrated when they fail.
I agree with the opinion that was recently expressed by Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. He said: “Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.”
This may sound a bit rude, but it’s probably true for most people. We should turn our passions into our hobbies, practice them in a Third Space and in our free time. Then, when we are able to follow our passions outside the workplace, we will be much less likely to become victims of Boreout when performing our jobs.
In the next articles I intend to continue to discuss interesting topics I’m learning at ThePowerMBA. Please use the comments below if you would like to suggest a subject.