For Dan, there’s nothing more painful than watching the clock, waiting restlessly for his shift to finally be over. As a server, he was used to being physically exhausted at the end of a busy day in a packed restaurant. But it was the off season — when he had nothing to do except roll silverware and pray a customer would stroll in — that really tired him out.
Finally, one afternoon, after only interacting with the bartender for an entire day, he quit. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he tells me.
Looking back on it, Dan realizes he was suffering from burnout. But he didn’t know it at the time because he associated that feeling with being overworked — not being overly bored. As it turns out, though, burnout as a result of boredom or stagnation is a common psychological condition; so much so that it’s earned its own buzzword: “boreout.”
Unsurprisingly, therapists like Sara Macke saw an increase in people dealing with boreout over the course of the pandemic. “For those who became ‘workers-from-home’ or have been unable to leave their environment much, they could not possibly think of anything else to do,” Macke says. That said, boreout has always been a facet of the monotony of corporate office culture.
While being bored at work may not seem like the biggest deal in the grand scheme of things, prolonged burnout from boredom can lead to agitation, hopelessness and feeling as though you’re stuck — all of which can contribute to depression. “‘I don’t have anything to do’ can quickly turn into ‘I’m not worth finding something to do,’” Macke warns, before adding, “Feeling stuck can trigger feelings of laziness and feeling sluggish or slumped.” This often leads to a decrease in motivation to engage in any sort of physical activity, only contributing further to a sense of exhaustion.
On the exhaustion front, one study found that feelings of boredom occur in the nucleus accumbens, the same part of the brain that helps regulate sleep, which may explain why passengers on long flights or car rides with nothing to do tend to get so sleepy.
Luckily, there are a few proactive steps you can take to energize yourself without walking out of your job. For starters, you should stop waiting around for motivation to strike you when you’re feeling stuck. “Waiting for motivation to come is like waiting for paint to dry,” Macke says. Instead, she recommends creating “momentum” by shaking things up in your routine and making a list of small, affordable and practical things you can do to deviate from your norms.
Twenty-three-year-old Katie did that and then some, quitting her office job during the pandemic when she couldn’t take the boredom any longer. “It felt like I was running on autopilot — unmotivated and lethargic,” she tells me.
Now, she’s working for herself as a travel blogger, and while money was tight at first, she’s built up a steady roster of long-term clients and believes that “working for myself is very sustainable.”
She does admit that being her own boss can also be stressful and draining — but in a much more satisfying way. “I prefer regular burnout to ‘boredom burnout’ because I can manage it better,” she says. Case in point: When she takes on too much work now, she can reflect, reprioritize and recover from it, but “with boredom burnout, it feels like there’s little you can do to avoid it.”
After all, it can’t help but bore down on you.