Thursday, August 11, 2005


is work boredom an existential inevitability?

Today's Washington Post contains an article entitled Boredom Numbs the Work World. A cynic might comment, so what else is new? Isn't this just filler for a slow news day, as those living in the northern hemisphere are preoccupied with thoughts of summer holidays? But I would encourage the cynics to think a bit more about something so endemic it escapes serious discussion. The Post article notes:

boredom is a condition that can be more stressful and damaging than overwork, according to those who have studied the issue...a lack of autonomy and a job that has very specific instructions -- hits workers from the highest to lowest echelons of the working world
I don't have good statistics to cite, but I would argue that work-related boredom is increasing, as sociological and business trends move in opposite directions. Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmim note in The Support Economy that the global rise of "psychological self-determination" is clashing with the relentless industrial logic of resource reduction, which seeks to control the scope of employee work with greater precision. As people become increasingly educated and socially independent they want more mental stimulation and latitude in their working lives. At the same time companies of all kinds want to make jobs more efficient and predictable, reducing work to a formula. Even though some companies have attempted to introduce "quality of work life" programs, these have failed for a multitude of reasons, mostly because they implicitly or explicitly undermine the authority of management.

In America at least, the corporate response to boredom has been to treat it as an attitude problem of employees. Zuboff and Maxmim cite a skills survey showing 80% of US employers "emphasized the importance of workers' attitudes and work ethic, while only 5% emphasized the cognitive abilities and growing skill demands." The message seems to be: leave the thinking to us, just smile and do as told. True, employees make decisions and are accountable, but they often have no real authority to make creative choices outside of established procedures.

While attitude can play a role in coping with job boredom, it is not a reliable strategy for addressing the sense of powerlessness many feel. Even the most devoted Medieval monks, who strived to be pious employees, suffered from a condition known as acedia, or spiritual burnout. Attitude approaches often led to burnout and more stress, as the cognitive dissonance of the boring reality one experiences clashes with how one is supposed to imagine that reality.

Rather than try to redesign people to fit a job, what is needed is to redesign jobs to fit the psychological needs of people. Human centered design needs to be applied to all kinds of work.

The Post article mentioned how airport x-ray scanning personnel are rotated every 30 minutes so they can maintain concentration when watching for dangerous articles. Such an approach is a small example of how human factors approaches can be applied to reduce boredom. For safety-critical work, removing boredom is not just something nice to do for the sake of workers, it is essential. But these approaches can be applied to all kinds of work, not just safety-critical ones.

An obscure discipline called macroergonomics is looking at how job boredom is a serious productivity issue. (Macroergonomics is the study of the design of work systems to fit the physical and socio-cognitive needs of individuals. Organizational psychology, in contrast, typically looks at more fuzzy issues such as organizational climate.)

Mitsuo Nagamachi at Hiroshima International University, for example, has done creative work on how jobs can be redesigned to improve employee satisfaction and productivity. The effects of monotony are not just subjective: a brain's EEG frequency differs when doing monotonous tasks compared with complex ones. In one example, Nagamachi describes how the employee union at a Japanese department store volunteered, and fought hard, to be allowed to increase the complexity and discretion of employee work, with a net effect that productivity increased. The transformation required the store to train everyone in merchandise ordering, when the function had previously be done by management. According to the logic of resource reduction, a centralized ordering function is more efficient. But devolving responsibility had spill-over effects not predicted by traditional efficiency analysis.

Much of the work looking at job redesign and productivity is done in places like Japan and Scandinavia, where employment relationships are longer-lasting than in much of the rest of the world. When employees work for the same employer for many years, it makes more sense for employers to be concerned with employee welfare, and to take risks to invest in new approaches with long term payoffs. But overall, the trend worldwide is for job relationships to be shorter. This shortening of employment is a consequence of the "psychological self-determination" mentioned by Zuboff and Maxmin (employees want the freedom to change jobs), and of the business logic of resource reduction, whereby companies want to minimize costs by keeping staffing flexible.

The needs of individual workers and the companies that hire them are moving in opposite directions, with dim consequences for both. Workers change jobs often, partly to flee boring work. Companies strive to make jobs as simple as possible, so they can reduce the expensive knowledge and training necessary to do the work. The more employee turnover a company experiences, the more it tries to simplify the work, so it can make new hires instantly productive. But at the same time, the simpler the job, the more boring it is, and more likely people will leave. From the employee perspective, the more inclined he or she is to "vote" with her feet and seek new thrills in new jobs, the less likely employers want to invest in employees to make their work more stimulating. Even at the highest levels of organizations, job turnover can be high (just look at the six-month tenures of many CEOs.) Employee turnover forces organizations to worry about job continuity, which encourages rigid work systems.

How to resolve the conundrum of job boredom is not obvious. But it must be addressed, and I am optimistic can be. When one asks business people what keeps them up at night, it often is the worry they lack the creative nous to survive the crushing pressure of competition. Let's hope the need of organizations to reinvent themselves will force them to confront how to make work interesting. Doing so will stimulate the mental energy of employees to develop creative solutions to competitive challenges.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?