Commentary: Why many workers are just not very interested in their jobs anymore
Employers worried about employees leaving due to boreout should be equally concerned about those staying despite feeling disengaged, says NUS Business School’s Wu Pei Chuan.
SINGAPORE: After 18 months of the great work-from-home experiment and dealing with a raging pandemic, many employees are exhausted and chalking up their fatigue to burnout.
But some suffer from its lesser-known but just as insidious cousin - boreout.
While the term sounds strange, many of us might recognise the distinctive signs of boreout - when employees feel disengaged and no longer see the point in what they are doing anymore.
This phenomenon gained some attention in June 2020, when a French court ordered a perfume company to pay damages to a former employee suffering from boreout, after sidelining him with non-existent duties over four years, such as buying a few sheets of paper a day.
The court decided the firm had inflicted a form of harassment on the worker by depriving him of meaningful, challenging tasks.
German experts speaking to the BBC in July define three aspects of boreout as being terribly bored, having a crisis of growth and experiencing a total lack of growth.
Boreout can lead to similar problems as burnout - from mental stress and depression to physical ailments and feelings of isolation and loneliness, according to a 2021 study of government workers in Turkey.
There is a tendency to downplay the challenge. Workers experiencing boreout may find it difficult to flag it up as a problem, for fear of being ridiculed as unproductive and lacking self-motivation.
But after being chronically bored for months, quick fixes like finding interesting small tasks and fresh projects to embark on might only be temporary solutions that do not solve the deeper issues.
It’s coming to bite us when boreout can be a driving force behind the coming “resignation tsunami”.
Four in 10 of employees say they will leave their current roles in the next three to six months, according to a McKinsey report published this month surveying five countries, including Singapore. About 36 per cent of those who are quitting are prepared to leave even without any job alternatives in hand.
Companies apprehensive about those leaving due to boreout should be equally concerned about those staying despite it.
Employees who turn up feeling disengaged perform poorly and can drag others down with them. Some may end up making costly mistakes to the company.
The problem may be bigger than we think. A pre-pandemic survey in 2017 found that 70 per cent of professionals in Singapore said they were bored with their work.
The key to understanding corporate ennui may lie in repairing the mismatch in what employees and employers want out of work.
A survey of Generation Z graduates from local universities ranked a friendly work environment, secure employment and professional training and development as their top three drivers when choosing a job.
Purpose, coaches, ongoing conversations, development and a focus on strengths are needed ingredients identified by millennials in feeling fulfilled in their careers.
While compensation and benefits remain important, these are only hygiene factors. Engaged employees cherish other aspects of work, including fresh challenges that give them direction, advancement opportunities, a sense of belonging and feeling appreciated by the company.
EQUAL PARTNERS IN CHANGE
Boreout is very often a sign of a deeper problem that a firm is engaging in low-valued work in desperate need of modernisation with tools that can take over laborious mundane tasks so that people are freed to engaged in higher order challenges that leverage their strengths.
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While companies shy away from transformation, telling themselves that workers are less adaptable and afraid of change, I have found over the past year that workers engaged as an equal partner in change are re-energised by this newfound sense of purpose.
There is no doubt change can end up in disillusionment if leaders fail to identify new needed skillsets and the scaffolding to aid workers to gain those new competencies.
But take heart from the example of Benjamin Chua, the CEO of Speco who transformed his cleaning company into to a cleantech company with proprietory antimicrobial tech during the pandemic and has even ventured out from Singapore to the region.
Cognisant that cleaning has been seen as a low-status, undesirable job with few career advancement opportunities, Mr Chua sought to transform his firm.
Investments in R&D, training and change management allowed him to develop new cleaning solutions requiring professional expertise and ultimately redesign a new job pathway for his employees.
Unsurprisingly, some were nervous and left but those who stayed now draw higher salaries and deploy some of the most sophisticated sterilisation methods to deliver value to clients.
What was key to this was good old-fashioned leadership. Mr Chua knew that his employees’ comfort with change was critical so he cultivated a culture of innovation and open communication to get their buy-in on ways to improve the job and provide career progression.
FEELING CONNECTED IN A VIRTUAL WORKPLACE
Boreout is also a rising trend when COVID-19 restrictions have made work-from-home pervasive and supervisors haven’t had the chance to rethink how to work more effectively, bearing in mind how to maintain their team’s morale and motivation levels.
Lacking their own physical workspaces and social connections, many feel disconnected, even displaced from their organisation.
But many have gotten into action to find new ways for teams to bond and connect in a work-from-home era.
Singapore tech firm TDCX, a digital customer solutions provider, moved during the pandemic to bring almost all employee engagement activities online - from induction and wellness activities to games and competitions - so that employees could continue to maintain the social aspect of their work life.
Team managers would conduct daily check-ins with their team members to see if they needed additional support. Yoga classes and access to professional counsellors were also provided to promote mental and physical well-being.
New hires were paid special attention, with daily engagements to welcome them into their roles and ease them into the company culture.
TDCX also started weekly employee surveys to get real-time feedback so leaders could act quickly if motivation levels were flagging.
It all seemed to work. TDCX’s employee satisfaction scores increased, from 85 per cent in 2019 to 91 per cent in 2020, demonstrating that a carefully designed plan can keep employees engaged despite a challenging work environment.
Boreout may also arise from a misalignment of personal values and corporate priorities.
This is why many companies are adopting some form of corporate social responsibility programmes and volunteer schemes to recognise the aspirations of employees who want to give back to society at large.
By setting aside protected time for such activities, employers signal commitment to meaningful pursuits beyond work.
Encouraging interest groups, such as learning clubs, sports, cultural arts, can also help employees develop deeper connections with each other, and reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness by celebrating shared lifestyles at work.
The challenge for employers will be to strike a delicate balance across the amount of time needed for such ties to form, engaging less motivated employees to participate, while avoiding giving the impression that employees should extend their working hours to make up for lost time.
The pandemic has opened up a frank and direct conversation about work life that should be continued. The key difference is we need a shift in thinking about work-life well-being solely in terms of burnout.
We need to make boreout part of the conversation in the same way we’ve embraced talking about presenteeism, work-life balance and hybrid work.
Dr Wu Pei Chuan is a senior lecturer in the Department of Management & Organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. She is also the Deputy Academic Director for the MSc in Human Capital Management and Analytics (HCMA) programme.