Burnout or Boredom? Regain a Sense of Engagement with Work

Woman sitting at her desk at work experiencing burnout

As a busy working professional, you are used to navigating challenges, setting high standards and striving for peak professional performance. You embrace personal responsibility, pursue personal and professional goals, and consistently aim to raise the bar for yourself. But what happens when that drive begins to disappear? Maybe you’ve noticed the passion for work fading, energy or motivation is hard to find, or the desire to achieve has declined. In our careers, it’s normal to have moments like this. However, if these moments become more than temporary slumps in performance it may be an indicator of something else. You might be grappling with one of two common workplace challenges: burnout or boredom. On the surface these two experiences may look similar. Let’s delve into the similarities and differences of these two states.

Burnout: Over-Engagement

Burnout may occur following periods of prolonged overstimulation or over-engagement. It’s the emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that arises from chronic or excessive stress. It’s more than just feeling tired; it’s a state of profound depletion that can leave you feeling overwhelmed and detached from your work. The World Health Organisation recognises burnout as an occupational phenomenon, characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, decreased engagement with work, and feelings of negativity or cynicism about work, and reduced productivity (World Health Organization, 2019).

Burnout: Recognise the Warning Signs

  • Physical: Persistent fatigue that doesn’t improve with rest or returns quickly after resuming work, frequent headaches or muscle pain, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, and a weakened immune system leaving you vulnerable to illness.
  • Cognitive and Emotional: Feeling trapped, helpless, or defeated. Becoming increasingly irritable or prone to outbursts. Experiencing a loss of motivation or decreased satisfaction with work, and negative or pessimistic thoughts. 
  • Behavioural: Excessive procrastination or avoidance of activities, difficulties concentrating, withdrawing from colleagues and loved ones, and relying on unhealthy coping strategies such as excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption. You may also notice a persistent decline in your productivity and performance at work.

(Queensland Government, 2021)

Chronic Boredom: Under-Engagement

Where burnout occurs from periods of overstimulation, chronic boredom may occur following periods of prolonged under stimulation or under-engagement with work. It’s normal to experience moments of boredom with work. However, chronic boredom may occur when we find large components of our role uninteresting, meaningless, or lacking purpose. This may also occur in workplaces or roles which don’t provide a sense of autonomy, opportunities for growth, or a sense of being valued at work. 

Boredom: Notice the subtle signs

  • Apathy: A pervasive lack of interest or enthusiasm for your work. You may feel lethargic and notice significant difficulties engaging with routine or mundane tasks, finding yourself going through the motions, and lacking drive or passion for the work you do. 
  • Under-stimulation: You’ve successfully mastered most or all components of your role. You are underutilised at work, leaving you feeling unchallenged and unfulfilled. You may crave opportunities to learn new things, grow professionally, and contribute in a more meaningful way.
  • Frustration and Resentment: A growing sense of feeling stuck, with no clear path for advancement or development. You might feel undervalued by the workplace, a lack of autonomy in the work that you do, or that your potential is being wasted.

Burnout and Boredom: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Despite their seemingly contrasting nature, burnout and chronic boredom share some common causes (Kohler, 2022):

  • Lack of Control: Feeling powerless or trapped in your work environment, with little autonomy or influence over your tasks and responsibilities. This lack of control may lead to stress, frustration, resentment, and a sense of helplessness.
  • Lack of Meaning: Feeling like your work lacks purpose or meaning, or a misalignment with your values or goals. This may lead to a loss of motivation, engagement, and overall job satisfaction. Attempting to remain engaged with work that feels meaningless or pointless, may lead to feelings of stress or leaving you feeling mentally drained.
  • Mismatch of Skills and Demands: Your current role doesn’t fully utilise your skills or challenge you, leaving you feeling unfulfilled by work. Continuing to work in an environment where there is a mismatch between your skills and the demand of the role may foster mental exhaustion, boredom, apathy, and a desire for work which is more aligned with your skillset.

The consequences of both burnout and chronic boredom may be far-reaching. They can lead to decreased wellbeing, motivation, and performance, ultimately impacting your personal and professional life. Additionally, burnout and chronic boredom have been linked to various health problems such as depression and anxiety, high turnover rates, and absenteeism (The University of Sydney, 2023).

Regain a Sense of Control

Whether it’s burnout or chronic boredom, there are steps you can take to regain a sense of wellbeing and reignite your passion for work:

  • Self-Reflection: Are you truly exhausted, or simply lacking challenge and stimulation? Do you feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed by work? What aspects of your work still bring you a sense of satisfaction or purpose (or not)?
  • Identify Your Needs: What changes would make your work more fulfilling? Do you need more autonomy, challenging projects, opportunities for growth, or simply a change of pace?
  • Uncover Your Values and Strengths: Knowing and using our values and individual strengths to guide career decisions may help to act as a buffer against boredom and burnout. Working in roles which are aligned with our values may help to reignite the sense of meaning and purpose in what we do, and working with our strengths may help us to feel less mentally drained by work.
  • Reconnect with Your Interests: Re-engage with activities and interests that bring you joy and fulfilment outside of work. Make time for hobbies, personal projects, and meaningful relationships.
  • Advocate for Yourself: If you haven’t already done so, voice your needs and concerns to your supervisor. With your supervisor, explore options to change the scope of your role, or internal opportunities for a role change.
  • Seek Support: Speaking with a trusted friend, therapist, coach, or mentor may help to provide guidance and support to navigate these challenges.

Remember: You’re not alone in this. Many busy working professionals struggle with burnout and chronic boredom. By understanding these two different emotional states, taking proactive steps, and seeking support when needed, you can overcome these challenges and create a fulfilling and sustainable career path. Your wellbeing and success are interconnected. By prioritising your mental, emotional, and physical health, you can unlock your full potential and achieve lasting satisfaction in both your personal and professional life.

References

Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases

Signs you might be experiencing a burnout and how to regain balance in your life | Darling Downs Health

Why Boredom At Work Is More Dangerous Than Burnout

Study shows generational decline in Australias mental health – The University of Sydney

Disclaimer – this blog is for education and information purposes only. It does not constitute individual advice. The information contained in this post may not be applicable or appropriate for everyone. If you need support, consider seeking individualised support from a qualified health professional.

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