Most Workers Bored at the Office

While many secretly wish for a job that allows them to goof off all day, a poll by Gallup finds that the happiest workers are those who are actively engaged all day.

Boredom Numbs the Work World (WaPo, D1)

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.


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.

My guess is that it’s not merely the quantity of work performed but the quality. Having plenty of free time is not particularly fulfilling but then neither is spending most of the day doing menial tasks. The key is to have something challenging and interesting to do most of the time.

Update (1459): Others have weighed in on this story.

Steve Bainbridge:

Workers with weak desires for independence are unaffected by employee involvement, while those with strong independence drives get increased job satisfaction from it. Based on the various studies recounted above, both types of workers appear to be present in the American workplace. Whether the taste for participation or for hierarchy is more common is hard to say from the evidence to date, but at the very least “checkered history of job enrichment efforts has taught us not to assume that everyone wants more autonomy, challenge, and responsibility at work.â€

Megan McArdle:

There is a tendency among liberal arts types to think that it is grossly unfair that investment bankers make so much money, when said artsy type’s clearly more socially valuable work is so pitifully renumerated. Having spent a summer doing it, I personally think that anyone who is willing to spend his Saturday night going over the fine print in an SEC prospectus until 2 am is welcome to all the filthy lucre they will pay him. I chose to become a journalist because I’ve only got forty or fifty years left on this planet, and if I’m going to spend the majority of my waking hours doing something, I’d rather do something I feel is worthwhile than something that will buy me a cushy place to sleep. It seems downright piggy for those of us with what my mother calls “English Major Jobs” to demand both fulfilling work and lavish renumeration.

Tom Smith:

[I]t is possible to be overwhelmed with work, and still horribly bored. I was a corporate law associate for 3.746 years, and though the first 9 months or so were fairly interesting, it got boring after that. I was astonished that I could be under so much pressure, and yet so bored, at the same time. Nobody likes to be bored, but I’m convinced I hate it even more than most people.

One of the great blessings of academic life is that it is a lot less boring than most jobs. Not as exciting I imagine as Naval Aviator or firefighter, but at least you are master of your own time, except for a few hours a week, and can work on your own projects. I still get bored often enough, but at least it is my own fault when I do, and I can do something about it with a little effort.

Gary Farber:

On the other hand, not dealt with well here is the fact that the variables do matter one hell of a lot; being bored in a prestigious, well-paying, well-supported, job, actually does suck one hell of a lot less than working in a fast-food restaurant.


Much more at the links.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Gabe says:

    Yup. Days where I have nothing to do wear me out far more than days when I’m swamped. Something I think this article may have missed, though, is the overall lack of meaningful work. It’s hard to get excited about being a cog.

  2. ICallMasICM says:

    Those are the days when I checkout OTB 3-4 times.

  3. Herb says:

    Having worked for some pretty good companies, I found the most satisfying and productive work was those jobs that allowed me to use my thoughts, imagination and skills to perform my job without interference from management. I have observed from my various work endeavors that those where I was bored, were those where micro management was a common practice. I have also observed that many in upper management, (Directors, Vice Presidents, and even CEO’s) keep personal around to help them with specialty projects that they were assigned to complete. For instance, a Director may have five to ten people who have special skills in various arenas that who are only called upon when their skill are needed. Therefore, many people sit around, get bored and are not productive when their skills are not required. Some call this practice “Politics”, but I call it waste and almost company fraud on the part of management.
    Look at the Airline Industry and you will see what I am talking about.
    Poor management is very easy to spot. It is those that have to lay people off to make the bottom line at the end of their financial year. Those that are layed off are the personal overburden that are only there to make their boss look good. Those bosses that utilize this management “tool” are those that are usually promoted to their level of incompetence and are always in a CYA mode.
    You will also find that the sign of a company giong down the tubes is when customer service is curtailed.
    Boredom leads to low productivity which leads to low moral which leads to low quality that leads to less sales and lay-offs and then to bankruptcy.

    I really laugh when companies hire high paid consulting firms th study why production is low or why costs are so high. These consultants usually start looking at the production force when they should start at the top. That is where one will find the answer to most problems.

  4. Gary Farber says:

    Thanks for not being too bored to notice!


  5. Matt says:

    It’s much more stressful to _look_ busy when you’re actually bored than it is to actually use your full productive capacity.