Research published last month in the International Journal of Epidemiology shows a link between being bored at work and dying early. Back in the late 1980s, 7,500 civil servants in London — aged 35 to 55 — were polled about their jobs. Thirty years later, Annie Britton and Martin Shipley of University College London went looking to see what happened to these people. The results are startling:
Compared to everyone other workers, folks who said they were “very bored” at their civil service jobs were 37% more likely to have died. For the chronically bored (those who reported high boredom again three years later), the incidence of coronary heart disease was 2.5 times those who weren’t bored.
Think that’s not so bad? In the same population of civil workers, those with lots of job stress were 1.7 times more likely to have coronary heart disease than those who reported having no work stress.
That’s right: boredom may be even more dangerous than stress.
If you’ve been following me for a couple of years, you know that I’ve talked before about Working Where You Don’t Fit Can Make You Sick. When the work is too small for you, you get bored. In a normal jobs, as the job increasingly is too small for you, you develop anxiety. When the work is really too small, it can lead to debilitating depression. This study shows how this boredom, even when you can’t get fired (they are Whitehall folks, after all), destroys not just your soul.
You may be thinking, as Shipley and Britton did, that boredom is just a symptom of other problems that the person has. I don’t think so because of what Ian McDonald and company found in their transformation of the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter. After reorganizing the facility so that people had work that was as big as they were — and bosses who were right-sized to be their bosses — the social services in the surrounding company town reported a more than 30% decrease in domestic violence complaints. Apparently having work that doesn’t fit causes bad behavior.
Which makes me think that Britton & Shipley are seeing something real: when you are too way big for your job, you get bored. And this boredom is psychologically and spiritually debilitating. Working at a job that is too small for you is not the only thing that leads to boredom (and disengagement and de-empowerment) but I’m betting that it’s what they’re seeing.
Get work that uses you fully, either on the job or somewhere else. Your life may depend on it.
- Britton, Annie & Shipley, Martin, (2010), “Bored to Death?“, International Journal of Epidemiology, 39(2):370-371; doi:10.1093/ije/dyp404
- Ian MacDonald’s story came firsthand to me. The story of NZAS is more completely described in Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations by Ian MacDonald, Catherine Burke and Karl Stewart. I edited those three chapters down to a more digestible 11,000 words in the GO Society’s Organization Design, Levels of Work and Human Capability: Executive Guide (available at the GO Society website).
- Levels of capability are explained on my RO category, among other places here, and in the “management novel”, Levels of Excellence by Julian Fairfield. It’s also available at the GO Society website as a free download (registration required).
Photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com