Without a doubt, the pandemic has left people questioning their roles, relationships, routines and themselves. When the pandemic started, people began to appreciate more time at home with their loved ones. Over time that’s turned into many of us questioning our future. The commute, office politics, the cost of that sandwich at lunch. Is it all worth it?
And that's going to be a challenge for the future of work. Here's why:
Most people, at some point, have done a bullsh*t job. You show up at work, but you know what you’re doing is pointless. It may be well paid and have good benefits, but you are genuinely miserable and living a lie deep down. You’d like to take time off. Maybe have lots of leisure time, but you know after a while that would be even worse as you realise that you are contributing nothing to humanity. Better to keep that bullsh*t job and get paid.
Perhaps you think your current job is meaningless? You wouldn't be alone.
In 2015 workers in London were greeted on their morning commute by signs highlighting the meaninglessness of modern employment. The slogans were taken from London School of Economics anthropology professor and activist David Graeber’s article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.”
Commuters were made to stop and consider the feeling of numbness inside of them by two hundred posters with depressing quotes such as:
YouGov research verified the prevalence of that sentiment and found:
- 37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world.
- Half of British workers (50%) say their job is meaningful, and 13% are unsure. Men (42%) are more likely to say their jobs are meaningless than women (32%).
- Despite this, most people with ‘meaningless’ jobs say it’s unlikely they will change jobs in the next 12 months.
The survey also asked if British workers find their jobs personally fulfilling, and a similar portion (33%) say they do not. 63% say their job is fulfilling, although only 18% say it is very fulfilling.
Londoners are the most likely regional grouping to say their jobs are unfulfilling (41%), while the Midlands and Wales have the highest job fulfilment levels (67% fulfilled, 26% not).
It didn’t make great reading then, and it certainly doesn’t now. It means that when you look around you and think that the person you are watching is not doing anything, there is a strong chance they are not.
And it hasn’t got any better in 2021. Articles like this by the BBC refer to “The Great Resignation: How employers drove workers to quit” and how the pandemic has shifted existing feelings into overdrive.
And then people are confused about what they can admit.
Because time is a valuable commodity and we certainly shouldn’t be wasting it. We are hardwired to an old idea that there is my time and your time and if I’m paying you for it, then your time is my time.
It leads to stress, hiding and unfulfilled relationships that cost the organisation. Don’t be too efficient, or you will get more of that work to do.
At this point, you might be looking around at your friends, co-workers and boss and wondering who finds work boring and pointless? It turns out there a few ways to spot people doing bullsh*t jobs.
Your organisation papers over the problem because they can’t or don’t want to fix it. It’s like having a leaking roof and rather than fix it; you hire a bucket and someone to empty it every hour. It’s often called “duct taping.”
You have supervisors for people who don’t need supervising. These supervisors have little to supervise, so they create dashboards and data to look good to their boss. They come up with meaningless assignments and create the admin and work where it is not required.
You have the job because other organisations have the same role. Pretty much how it sounds.
The ” just so everyone knows I’m important” role—the receptionist who takes two calls per day or the multiple executive assistants to take notes.
It’s difficult or unpleasant to ask people to leave. Best just create them a special project or role.
Do you recognise any of the above?
But what about the psychological consequences of doing a job that you find boring and meaningless?
Most have heard of burnout and why it’s bad, but have you heard of boreout? Whilst burnout is associated with long hours, overwork and poor work-life balance, boreout happens when we are bored by our work. To the point where it is utterly meaningless.
Boreout doesn’t get as much attention as burnout, although it can result in some of the same health problems for workers and high staff turnover.
Ruth Stock-Homburg, a management and human resources management professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, says she’s witnessed the phenomenon across multiple industries. She also says that Stock-Homburg and her colleagues have identified three main aspects of the boreout phenomenon: “being terribly bored, having a crisis of growth and having a crisis of meaning”.
Focusing on boreout right now might be particularly useful, given that since the pandemic hit, people have been re-evaluating their employment choices for several reasons. It’s clear Covid-19 has provided an opportunity for some people to reassess whether they find what they are doing meaningful.
To understand the value of meaningful work, it is worth looking at the theory of play.
Infants try to figure out their impact on the world and who they are by noticing they have a predictable effect on the world. Push the toy. It moves. This is the moment a child realises they are something different in the world and can affect it. The joy of that child is immense.
And what happens when a child is prevented from having an effect on the world? We see a decline in their wellbeing and self-efficacy.
I think this is happening with bullsh*t jobs. People become depressed, lose motivation and don’t understand why they feel that way. As a coach, I hear people contemplate, asking, “I should be happy, right? I have a good job and benefits. I get paid and have status. It’s a great deal, so why am I so miserable?”
I think that’s the reason. People don’t appreciate all the dimensions of a job. We don’t talk about being bored in our roles and don’t understand how to create meaning.
As we all try to reshape the workplace, we need to do so based on what we've learnt.
Being bored at work is nothing new but the culture we perpetuate of fulfilment and interest at work is a new norm.
We need to make boredom part of the conversation just as much as burnout, remote work and overwhelm. We need leaders who can create a shift in the narrative around mental health beyond just stress and burnout.
That’s if we do genuinely believe that we all want a good work-life and create the conditions where people thrive.