Boreout and burnout – a strange pair

Boreout and burnout – a strange pair

Boreout – a new trend?

Up to 50% and on average still 1,5…3hrs working time are being used for private purposes; 60% of online purchases and 70% of the time spent on porn sites are attributable to working hours [1]; and according to a recent survey, 41% of employees feel overqualified [2]. This horror for every employer concerned about productivity has a name: boreout. Sometimes, boreout is claimed to be the opposite of the much better-known state burnout [3,4]. And, oddly enough, burnout has socially clearly positive connotations – probably a consequence of the ubiquitous performance paradigm.

In order to better understand what’s behind all this, this post presents a few thoughts, basically leading back to considerations by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [5]. It is all about the balance between certain requirements that we are facing, and our abilities to cope with these.

Boreout, burnout and the feel-good area in between

boreout and burnout as functions of capabilities and requiremensAs long as the skills and capabilities more or less satisfy the requirements this corresponds to the green area in the image. Our performance does not always have to be perfect: some tasks may be rather challenging, others appear as low hanging fruits, but grosso modo our capabilities meet the task ahead and we feel well. This condition is met particularly well in the narrow, lush green marked area. The more meaning we recognize in our objective (or, the more meaning we are able to instill into it), the more likely and steadily will we find ourselves I this flow state in which the execution of our tasks seems almost effortless, in which we forget everything around us and become one with the objective and our activity (rich green segment). This condition is fun, it entails a feeling of satisfaction and when we are done, we are proud and happy: we are creating something purposeful, something which benefits someone and for which we may expect recognition and appreciation – either directly from people profiting of our work, or from colleagues and executives acting as in-betweens.

With increasing demands and constant capabilities, however, our mood is spiralling downward. Initially, we still manage our objective with an increased expenditure of time and some outside support, but eventually even that will not suffice (orange area): we are increasingly dependent on foreign aid, we are afraid to fail, eventually we will be physically and/or mentally exhausted, until we finally come to the conclusion that this isn’t our job any more. Add increasing doubts on purpose and meaning of the work to be done (e.g. because our work is not sufficiently recognized by others) and we move from bad to worse, finally resulting in a complete collapse or burnout (rich orange segment). To escape from burnout we definitiely need professional help – accompanied by sustainable corrective interventions in our work environment, otherwise relapse is inevitable.

On the other hand it also happens that the requirements are lagging behind our abilities. What at first appears to us simply and easily manageable slowly but surely becomes boring, uninteresting and we are feeling increasing frustration about being put at the wrong place (blue area). Again, there is then a final boost to conditions under which we see our expectations completely frustrated, feel useless, and more and more we see reason that our capabilities are pearls cast before swine. Here again, quite obviously the lack of recognition plays an important role, albeit from the perspective of underused qualifications. This condition (rich blue segment) is the aforementioned boreout. Again, only therapeutic support will permit rescue from this state, accompanied by well-conceived corrective measures in the work environment in order to prevent a relapse.

Neither burnout nor boreout (or burnout/boreout syndrome respectively) are recognized as a disease, but surely clinically significant.

It is clear from these considerations that boreout and burnout are states located in two different and mutually independent dimensions. Thus, either of these two states is not just the the opposite of the other. This has a fundamental influence on how to prevent them.

Boreout and burnout – countermeasures

Which basic, but nevertheless concrete ways are there to move away from overload (point A in the graph) and underload (point D) respectively and to avoid the crash of a particular person towards only therapeutically accessible regions?

A=>B: Lowering the quantitative requirements, i.e. to work less, or changing to a different task that better suites the abilities, i.e. making the work easier. These interventions are usually realisable at short notice and quite effective insofar as they still result in meaningful tasks.

A=>C: Extending, i.e. training, available skills or utilizing already existing higher skills, i.e. reshaping the work so that this becomes possible. Training requires a certain amount of time, it is thus only a medium to long term solution, while a suitable adjustment of the kind of work itself sometimes is feasible upon relatively short notice, if a replacement is found for the original task. The use of more sophisticated existing skills (if any) is, in most cases, perceived as useful and these interventions are then also seen in positive light.

D=>E: Increasing requirements, i.e. making the work more demanding, is possible in a quantitative way. However, “more of the same” will usually enhance the already existing frustration. On the other hand, the work could be modified to require higher quality demands (e.g. more creative leeway, wider scope of responsibility, less division of labor, etc.) and that’s very often a viable short term solution and useful in many other ways.

D=>F: Reducing skills is simply absurd; an adjustment in this direction makes sense only through the use of a less skilled force. This case is best described by overqualification and here it can paradoxically lead to symptoms similar to burnout: for a start, the individuals concerned try to paper over the cracks either by “laziness” or, vice versa, with feigned activity and, in both cases, then suffer from additional stress. If this fails (and it usually does), both strategies very soon lead to genuine fear of maladjustment, incompetence, failure and job loss.

Thus, although boreout and burnout have a certain affinity to each other – from the perspectives of both their origins as well as regarding possible personal countermeasures are they two largely autonomous phenomena.

Negative developments …

When combating boreout and burnout, four characteristic negative developments may happen, resulting all to often in further deteriorations:

…with overload:

1. When attempting a change A=>B: Tensions and anxieties are tried to be made bearable by drugs (eating, smoking, alcohol, …).
2. No change at all is attempted, because visible stress is socially rewarded.

…with underload:

3. Attempting a change D=>F: Escaping towards activities that require lower skills – gambling, purely passive consumption of entertainment.
4. Pretending activity – either through more hectic, or temporal extension, e.g. doing things “very carefully”; stress derived from both of these non-goal-oriented activities secures at least for a certain time a desirable social acceptance (see no. 2. above). It is the variant of the artificial extension of activities that gives boreout its disreputable image of laziness and self-inflicted boredom; in most cases, however, the initial failure lies in bad organisation which does not use available resources properly.

Surprisingly, the negative developments of these two groups show more resemblance with than contradictions to each other – even though their origins are very different.

Boreout and burnout prevention

Finally a number of very general approaches to boreout and burnout prevention from the perspectives of the organization and its leaders on the one hand and from that of the concerned individuals on the other. I deliberately exclude all therapy-accompanying measures since they have to be specially designed to suit individual people and their organisation and therefore cannot be phrased in general form.

Boreout and burnout prevention from the perspective of organisation and leadership:

  • honest job ads – neither under- nor overstating of vacancies
  • careful selection of personnel w.r.t. tasks and activities
  • willingness to adapt tasks and activities of the selected person (there is no perfect fit!); job descriptions usually are more hindrance than help in that respect
  • make on-boarding flexible and considerate, keep in steady contact, frequent joint reflection on progress, necessary interventions should be well coordinated
  • enable development and growth, even if the star career is not possible
  • live corporate values – in particular, more than anyone else, brain workers need to believe in them to run up to full power
  • recognition is the essential indicator that meaningful work has been done; it may result from the performance itself (“chopping wood is popular because you can see the success immediately”, as Einstein said), or it has to come from clients, colleagues and executives
  • basic trust in leadership and organisation is a prerequisite for loyalty – and this strengthens employees in view of occasionally increased workload

Boreout and burnout prevention from the perspective of the individual:

  • read job ad accurately and questioning, don’t hesitate to call back
  • prepare well for the intended activities
  • right from day one, continuous exchange with colleagues and managers in order to learn and to adapt
  • try to actively shape objectives and work environment as far as possible, taking into account the interests of the organization
  •  learn and grow

The general rule holds:

„Employees need to feel needed and appreciated. This is best done by showing them that they are needed and appreciated; and they should honor that appreciation by doing their part.“

Does it surprise you that I consider systemic coaching and consulting as optimal methods for boreout and burnout prevention?

[1] Die Zeit, Karriere: Dafür bezahlt zu werden, nichts zu tun
[2] Umfrage: „Chef, mir ist fad!“ (25.1.2016)
[3] Wikipedia: Boreout
[4] Wikipedia: Occupational burnout
[5] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow – das Geheimnis des Glücks

Note: The German version of this text has been published under the title ‘Boreout und Burnout – ein seltsames Paar’ as a contribution to Frédéric Jordan’s blog parade ‘Boreout – Krankheit oder Langeweile?‘ in February 2015.

CC BY 3.0 ATCredit: The picture on this page has been created by Leopold Faltin,, and is licensed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0. AT)  – Attribution: link to this page with anchor text ‘Leopold Faltin’.

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