Forget Burnout, Boreout is the New Office Disease

Posted: September 14, 2011 by Alison in Articles/Essays
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Are you irritable when you return from work? Drained of emotion? You could be suffering from boreout

By: Roger Boyes

Are you irritable when you return from work? Drained of emotion? Do you stare blankly at the wall of your living room?

You could be suffering not from burnout but from boreout, which could soon become the fashionable new office disease. “We estimate that 15 per cent of office staff are on the way to boreout,” said Peter Werder, the co-author of a management book outlining the perils of the condition. “They are seriously underchallenged.”

Many workers are so ill at ease in the office that they spend a large part of the day simulating work. That generates more negative stress than excessive working. The result is serious but hidden depression in the office.

“It is easier nowadays to confess to alcoholism than to tell your boss you are not being used properly,” said the co-author, Philippe Rothlin. While burnout and stress are socially acceptable problems, boreout is seen as little more than slacking.

The authors extrapolate from a study of time wastage conducted in 2005 by Dan Malachowski. One third of his 10,000 respondents said that they did not have challenging work and as a result spent an average of two office hours a day on private matters to kill time.

The new study – which has become a business book bestseller – has a much smaller but more carefully chosen sample: 100 managers, bankers, PR and advertising agency executives, all working in supposedly highly charged environments. The resulting profile of a boreout victim is remarkably similar to characters such as Tim in the Ricky Gervais BBC comedy series The Office, and Homer Simpson. Boreout, it appears, is such a profound taboo that it can only be shown in a comic context.

Boreout works like this: a boss refuses to delegate work, frustrated underlings ask for more to do but are trusted only with mind-numbing tasks. After a while they stop asking and enjoy the free time at their desk, stretching out the low-intensity tasks with a series of strategems.

But mimicking work day after day erodes self-esteem. Result: the boss hurtles towards burnout while at least some of his staff edge towards boreout. The symptoms are almost identical.

“In a team of six, you often find that two people take on most of the work and at least one has almost nothing to do. He’s not lazy – it’s just part of the group dynamic,” Werder said.

The authors of the book now run corporate seminars on the problem, which is being taken very seriously in Germany. It is seen as contributing to high levels of sick leave and very low levels of company loyalty.

For every stage on the road to boreout there are appropriate tricks. At first, when you are still keen but underworked you have to convince your boss that you are worthy of more trust.

That leads to what the authors call the pseudo-commitment strategy. The point of this is to stay in the office for as long as your boss, even if you have nothing to do.

“You surrender free time because you assume that the boss expects this from you,” the authors say. In fact, it sets a pattern of fake labour. A less harmful tactic is to take a briefcase home with you every evening, making it clear that work will continue even when you are not physically at your desk. The briefcase, of course, is never opened.

As boreout takes hold, as underworking turns into work aversion, you become more cunning. You negotiate for artificially long deadlines that build hours of doing nothing into your office rhythm. Or you go for “strategic delay”. A team project needs input from someone in another department. So you wait until that person is absent – in a meeting or on a flight – before calling. He then becomes responsible for the fact that you have nothing to do for a few hours, or even days.

Boreout has been part of office life for the best part of a century. I remember while working for the Financial Times in the 1970s that colleagues developed an “Italian Jacket” system. A spare jacket, kept in the office, would be spread over the back of your chair, a half-drunk cup of coffee would be placed next to the phone – and you could disappear for a couple of hours. The Editor would assume that you were briefly elsewhere in the building.

Rothlin and Werder outline similarly old-fashioned work-avoidance ploys that are still in use. A fake stomach upset that allows you to retreat to the lavatory and flick through magazines remains a hardy favourite. German business writers have noted a rise in people smoking since smokers were banished from the building; indeed some companies have noted the emergence of the fake smoker who pretends to be addicted simply to escape from his desk.

“What is new,” Werder said, “is that e-mail and the mobile phone have expanded the range of alternative activities for the underworked. He can buy a pram on eBay, download games and book his holidays. How much blogging do you think goes on during office hours?”

The satisfaction of liberating time from your employer quickly curdles. Then, the authors say, there are only two options to head off a swift decline to boreout: to talk to your boss and risk his contempt or to change your job.

Is it you?
If you say “yes” to four or more of these, you could have boreout . . .

  1. Do you complete private tasks at work?
  2. Do you feel under-challenged or bored?
  3. Do you sometimes pretend to be busy?
  4. Are you tired and apathetic after work even though you experienced no stress in the office?
  5. Are you unhappy with your work?
  6. Do you find your work meaningless?
  7. Could you complete your work quicker than you are doing?
  8. Are you afraid of changing your job because you might take a salary cut?
  9. Do you send private e-mails to colleagues during working hours?
  10. Do you have little or no interest in your work?

Source: Diagnose Burnout, Redline Wirtschaft, 2007

  1. […] Forget Burnout, Boreout is the New Office Disease ( Advertisement Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Did Fracking Help Cause Oklahoma Earthquakes? Share this:Gefällt mir:LikeSei der Erste, dem dieser post gefällt. […]

  2. Aaron Eden says:

    Alison, just when I’m looking for posts about social media fatigue that I encountered your blog. The word ‘boreout’ is super hilarious that I think it can apply not only to office workers as you mentioned here, but to all of us who feel like we’re tired of social networking and the likes. I guess, it all comes from trying to be the last human RSS feed standing as we post here, there and everywhere. Where have all the fun in conversations gone to..? Thanks anyway, I enjoyed reading what you wrote!

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