We all lead hectic lives and look forward to quiet moments and down time, right? We lust for the end of the workday when we can mindlessly sit on the couch, or for the coming weekend when we can relax, or our next vacation when we take a mental break. But how long can we turn our brains off until we want to turn them back on? Do any of us really feel comfortable sitting still with our thoughts for days, hours, even minutes on end?

There’s a reason we secretly look forward to getting back to work after a trip away or weekend off. According to the science of our brains, we may even want to get back to work shortly after our lunch break!

The truth is, we can only sit still for so long. Our brains want to be exercised and put to work a lot more than we may realize. They crave stimulation so much as that they would rather be negatively stimulated than have no stimulation at all. In other words, our brains prefer pain to boredom.

A study done by Timothy Wilson, a professor of Psychology at University of Virginia, tested this theory among people of all ages in different settings. According to the report, “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind,” in an issue of Science, the findings of the study were as follows: In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

Apparently, we really don’t like to be bored! We’d rather sit through electric shocks than experience the unparalleled dread and pain that is boredom. While this may come as a shock, pun intended, it’s a fact that we can take advantage of. This knowledge can be especially useful in a workplace setting.

Causes

Workplace boredom is most often seen in jobs where work is measured as units of time, rather than units of production, according to Psychology Today. Having tasks to complete rather than time to pass keeps employees motivated and less clock-obsessed. Jobs that rely on the passage of time leaves workers without a sense of direction and ultimately leads to boredom.

Fisher Investments found other causes of why people grow bored at work, such as not learning enough or being challenged. If workers are held back from learning new skills to better utilize themselves, or are only useful for mindless and time-consuming tasks that don’t require much thought or creativity, our minds will often trail off and become fatigued and uninterested. Millennials, in particular, are statistically twice as likely to experience boredom due to not having enough work to do. It is theorized this is due to their efficiency, as their advanced knowledge of technology allows them to complete tasks quicker than their older counterparts.

Effects

Boredom may stem from all kinds of roots within each particular workplace, but the effects are all the same. Employees who are bored experience stressful and damaging effects, and unfortunately, this is apparent in nearly half the working population.

According to Curt W. Coffman, global practice leader at the Gallup Organization, “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.”

An article by Psychology Today claims, “It doesn’t take much of a leap to conclude that employees who are better utilized feel more fulfilled, more engaged; they work more productively.” The article also discusses that people who are under-worked experience almost 10% less job satisfaction than those who are overworked. When employees say they have too much work to do, they also recognize that they are valued by their employers and trusted with responsibilities.

Our brains don’t enjoy boredom and we’ve seen the measures people will take to avoid experiencing boredom. In the workplace, boredom can be toxic to both individual employees and companies alike, as workers are less motivated and less productive. In order to liberate ourselves, our coworkers, and our employees, we must find ways to keep our mind stimulated and engaged in the work we do. It’s both an individual and a group effort, and it’s a way of work that we must train to learn. Find out how to combat boredom at work in Part 2 of our Boredom in the Workplace series.

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