On-the-job burnout has been a topic of conversation for many years, and not just in relation to people working in typically high-stress positions. Office workers, teachers, and warehouse workers are just as prone to job burnout as ER doctors and stock market traders. And for some time, burnout has acted as something of a catch-all explanation for feeling disengaged at work.
But burnout has a more subtle sibling that can mimic some of its most pernicious symptoms—“boreout.”
Put simply, boreout is a feeling of disengagement at work that’s due to being “underloaded.” Psychologist Steve Savels says that burnout is a condition that occurs when you keep working until all of your energy is gone. However, with boreout, “you get stuck in your ‘comfort zone’ for too long, until your personal development comes to a halt.”
Significantly, the symptoms of boreout and burnout can be very similar. “You become irritated, cynical, and you feel worthless. Although you don’t have enough to do—or what you have to do is not stimulating enough, you get extremely stressed,” writes Savels.
It is true that the use of boredom as a measure of engagement has been around for a while. In 2016, Udemy conducted a “Workplace Boredom Study” and found that 43% of US office workers were bored at work. The same study found that bored workers are twice as likely to leave the company.
Conditions had not improved much by 2021. A Capterra survey of employees in the UK and Ireland revealed that 21% like their jobs less after the pandemic. Of those, 42% said their jobs had become boring, and 25% said their jobs had lost their meaning.
Gallup’s 2021 “State of the Global Workplace” report is even more revealing. The report found that 80% of employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work. Gallup estimates that this lack of engagement results in lost productivity equal to $8.1 trillion US per year.
In light of the Great Resignation and changing workforce models, leaders cannot afford to ignore boredom as a metric of engagement. This is not to say that burnout doesn’t matter—it does, and a lot of employees do feel burned out. Considering how burnout and boreout can mimic each other, leaders should help disengaged employees evaluate which one is ultimately responsible for their dissatisfaction at work. A burned-out employee will need a different approach to re-engaging than a bored-out one, but ignoring either leads to lost productivity and higher employee turnover.
To evaluate whether it’s boreout or burnout that’s causing disengagement, ask the following questions:
ARE YOU STRUGGLING TO FIND ENOUGH WORK TO FILL THE DAY?
One cause of boredom at work is simply too little to do. This issue could be tough for employees to confess. Employees generally dislike admitting that there is not enough work to fill the time. They may be hesitant to increase their workload if they think the lull is temporary, or they may worry that sharing this information will put their job at risk. Assure quality employees that their jobs are safe, and ask what kinds of tasks or activities they might be interested in doing. Perhaps there is a way to expand the employee’s role or job description.
WHAT ARE YOU INTERESTED IN LEARNING?
Ask employees if they would like to explore other opportunities—perhaps through a job-shadow in the company, a formal mentorship arrangement, or a special project or opportunity to develop leadership skills. Some employees–especially those working remotely–may need encouragement to establish more personal connections. Are they interested in learning something completely unrelated to work—a hobby or academic pursuit? Is there a way to connect people who are interested in running, books, or crafts, for example? Could you create internal channels to encourage those connections?
WHAT ARE YOUR ULTIMATE CAREER GOALS?
Employees who believe that their employers care about their career development will stay longer than those who feel like their career goals don’t matter to employers. If your employee is not on a clear path to fulfilling his or her career goals, work to create that path through development, training, or academic pursuits.
WHAT ARE YOUR INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF WORK?
Sometimes boredom at work reflects a general lack of purpose or meaning in the work. In fact, many workers who have quit their jobs in the Great Resignation cite pursuing something more meaningful as a motive. Asking about outside interests might reveal some hint of how to bring more value to the employee’s work life. For instance, if your employee is passionate about gardening, could that employee spearhead a community garden initiative, either on the corporate campus or in a community near the office?
Good employees are too valuable to risk losing because of boredom. Take the time to evaluate whether disengagement is from burnout or boreout, and encourage those bored employees to find ways to re-engage through creative means. Not only will you improve retention, but you will help great people find renewed purpose and meaning in work.
Note: Article originally appeared on Forbes.com