The Plague of Boredom

March 11, 2017

In my last blog post, I introduced Dr. Bill Thomas’ claim that the majority of suffering in nursing homes occur from three plagues of loneliness, boredom and helplessness. In this post, I focus on the plague of boredom.

Boredom in the Nursing Home

One of many critiques from residents about their own lived experiences while in the nursing home is how bored they have become because they do the same thing every day.  Many times, residents don’t have to express it. Walk through the halls of a traditional nursing home and you will see many residents asleep in their wheelchair or staring blankly while parked in the hallway or in a lounge with maybe the TV playing reruns of The Andy Griffith Show.

During my experience as an aide and as a researcher, a common response among residents when asked how their day was going is “Same $#%t, different day!” As an aide, I understood this all too well. For residents, the time in between meals is when boredom would typically occur. A resident once shared with me, “Most of my day is spent waiting”. She waits to get up and dressed. She waits to get led into the dining room. She waits to get medicated and treated. She waits to go to the bathroom. She waits to go to her appointments. She waits to go to an activity. And she waits to go to bed. She cannot physically do many of these activities on her own, or when she tries, she is reprimanded by the nursing staff because she might “hurt herself”. Like so many other residents, she is completely and totally dependent on the staff and this is in part why boredom is a plague of nursing home life. She told me, “I have learned to become very patient in my old age.” Patience is truly a virtue for residents, and for this, I commend her.

Boredom in the Workplace

Boredom in the workplace looks different than in the nursing home…or does it?  Coincidentally, I hear the same response from teammates when I ask them how their day is going, “Same $#%t, different day!  This is indicative of the routinization of their daily activities and that it doesn’t change.  My teammates may not be as dependent on others to do their daily work like residents are dependent on nursing staff; yet, we are an organization that is interdependent on other teams to ensure we complete our mission. We develop and follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) as well as follow industry “best practices” within our fields and domain.

Should we not follow SOPs or best practices? Of course we should. They are not bad necessarily. In fact, documenting what you do and HOW you do it is very important in the workplace especially where teammates are transient regularly.

However, I do believe that when we focus on conducting our daily activities simply following SOPs and best practices, we will eventually render ourselves irrelevant. We begin to hear the explanation, “We’ve always done it this way”.  And more importantly, we never move beyond the status quo. Boredom sets in for the individual who simply does not need to think beyond the required procedures or practices, even if they are considered “the best”.

Another indication of whether the plague of boredom exists in your workplace is the level of engagement.  How many people are truly engaged with other teammates, or in other programs, projects, or activities that are beyond what they are “required” to do. If your organization does not provide such opportunities, that is a whole different topic. However, I bet most workplaces offer multiple opportunities wherein one or many can be engaged in activities that is not written in someone’s job description.  Take note of who these are on your team.  The more engaged people are with each other and other activities while at work, the less likely they are to be or become bored at work.

Why Does Boredom Matter?

Boredom matters in the workplace because it kills creativity.  When people cannot be creative they cannot think beyond the possible. When they are devoid of passion and meaningful work, they are devoid of a purpose beyond “what’s in it for me”.  Passionate people doing meaningful work for a purpose bigger than themselves rarely suffer from the plague of boredom.

Antidotes to Boredom in the Workplace

  1. Make FUN a visible priority. Learn people’s passions and how they can incorporate their skills and talents into their everyday work. Let them know they can be spontaneous and decide to do something fun while working.
  2. Allow ideas to FAIL without retribution. Give people the chance to pitch ideas that may vary from the SOP or best practices, and permit them to put their idea(s) to the test.  This gives them the opportunity to think creatively, prototype it, and then iterate if it doesn’t quite meet the mark. Teams learn from “failure” more often than they will succeed, but failure is almost always required before real success.  We all know that many good ideas may not solve the problem, or maybe not even right away. But allowing individuals to experiment and prototype ideas regularly removes the mindless monotony of work and further allows the opportunity to fail faster so that it can be fixed and retested again.  In order for any organization to move beyond the status quo, we must learn to think creatively and to act boldly and responsibly.
  3. Finally, be sure your organization’s PURPOSE is clear so that people are passionate about their work and connected to how it contributes to something bigger than themselves. People who believe in this bigger purpose, it gives their work meaning, and they become intimately connected to their work. We all need to feel what we have purpose, that what we do matters not just to ourselves, but to something bigger than us.

These antidotes will surely eradicate the plague of boredom in any organization.

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