Boreout – a Vicious Circle

Boreout is much more than twiddling your thumbs at work. It is a condition that can make people seriously ill.

When I think back to my military service days, one thing comes to mind above all: waiting, shooting, waiting, crawling, waiting, cleaning rifles, waiting. A heavy boredom spread through me. I tried to avoid any activity. Nevertheless, I was always tired and worn out.

What I had experienced in military service was, according to the common definition, a boreout. If it lasts a few weeks, as in the military service, it is not severe. It is much harder when it occurs in the workplace. You can't run away from the workplace that quickly.

Four Elements Combine to Form a Diabolical Mixture

Boreout is much more than being a bit bored or even lazy. Philippe Rothlin and Peter R. Werder, who were the first to deal with boreout in the German-speaking world, distinguish four elements whose interaction constitutes a boreout:

  • Boredom
  • Underchallenge
  • Disinterest
  • Behavioural strategies

Boredom is about listlessness and a state of helplessness. One does not know what to do. Underchallenge "describes the feeling of being able to do more than is required of one". In the case of disinterest, the lack of identification with the work is in the spotlight.

"Workers have been made lazy."

Philippe Rothlin, Peter R. Werder Boreout experts

Why don't bored employees simply look for a new job or make an effort to work more? Paradoxically, exactly the opposite happens: boreout sufferers develop strategies to do as little as possible.

Multiple Causes

This behaviour becomes more understandable when one takes a closer look at the causes of boreout. Those affected are not bored because they cannot motivate themselves, but for a number of other reasons:

  • Because they are in the wrong job,
  • because the job doesn't live up to its promise,
  • because they learned the wrong profession,
  • because they don't get recognition for the work they do,
  • because they've been demoted,
  • because the work is seen as meaningless,
  • because the work is too simple,
  • because the boss doesn't give them enough work,
  • because there is a culture of work avoidance in the company, or
  • because they are bullied.

In her book about boreout, underchallenge and boredom Elisabeth Prammer gives examples of people who have fallen into a boreout. They are not lazy people. Rather, they are prevented by circumstances or superiors from achieving much at work. To paraphrase Rothlin and Werder, "workers have been made lazy."

Avoidance Strategies Aggravate Boreout

In their book "Unterforderung" (underchallenge), Rothlin and Werder list a whole series of avoidance strategies that sufferers use to avoid boring work:

  • Doing the work very quickly, but delivering it to the boss much later.
  • Spreading the dull work over a very long period of time and appearing as stressed as possible.
  • Pretending to be busy when you are not.
  • Scheduling meetings away from home so that it is not worth returning to the office.
  • Pretending to work by making keyboard or typing noises.

By doing this, sufferers only drive themselves further into boreout. Although they do little to nothing in their workday or indulge in substitute activities such as online games, they are unhappy. They cannot enjoy doing nothing, they have a guilty conscience, their time does not pass, they are endlessly bored and unmotivated. In the evening, they are often more exhausted than after a hard day's work.

Same Symptoms as Burnout

"With being underchallenged, you kind of lose your creativity completely," says one of the people interviewed by Elisabeth Prammer. "There's just more emptiness."

No wonder the boreout experts attribute the same symptoms to those affected as they do to burnout. Boreout can also deprive people of sleep and lead to depression. Those affected remain trapped in negative emotions.

Motivation Is a Way out

Why don't boreout sufferers try to pull themselves out of the hole with all their power, if they are not lazy people? They certainly try, writes Elisabeth Prammer, but they often fail and eventually give up. Most of those she interviewed have informed their bosses that they are underchallenged or want more work. For various reasons, this did not work. Sometimes the superior was affected by boreout himself/herself or was not willing to give up work. In some companies there was a culture of avoiding work.

Since boreout causes a great deal of suffering, those affected must try to break out of the vicious circle. According to Rothlin and Werder, this requires a good deal of personal responsibility and self-motivation.


Hansjörg Schmid

Hansjörg Schmid