Some leaders are still in a state of crisis and high anxiety, working their way through the response to Covid-19. But others confess to feeling bored. Bored and exhausted. These leaders have sometimes been working relentlessly at a particular task or challenge for months now, sometimes with effect and sometimes not. And some are feeling bored in spite of continued busyness, variety or challenge.
Exhaustion, however unpleasant, may be viewed as an honourable feeling. We can use it to say that we’ve given this situation all that we have got. We know that it tells us that we need recovery time, and to pay attention to our energy. However, experiencing boredom at work in an ongoing health and care crisis can feel positively perverse. But what is this feeling telling us? And how can we lead effectively when we are experiencing a general sense of dissatisfaction, listlessness or irritation with what can feel like an endless present moment?
Why are we bored?
There is broad agreement across psychology, sociology and philosophy that boredom occurs when people experience a lack of meaning and interest in their situation or environment. Although work might not be consistently interesting, it does need to feel meaningful or purposeful in some way in order to hold our attention. Boredom might be telling us something important about a lack of alignment between our current activities, our understanding of purpose and our new and evolving contexts.
The good news is that being curious about boredom can not only alleviate the worst of its negative effects, but it can also refocus and re-energise our attention to what our work should really be about.
Boredom can create a powerful, negative set of feelings that can propel the sufferer to action. Those actions aren’t always constructive (people with high boredom tendencies often engage in more risky behaviours). But if we can recognise that boredom may be an indication that our work no longer feels meaningful to us, there is an opportunity to use this 'propulsion' effect to rediscover meaning and purpose in our new context.
Through collaborative conversations with colleagues and others working in our systems, we can collectively seek to make sense of the current context. There is no certainty, therefore we need to work with our best judgement given what we can know. By working with others we pool knowledge and perspectives, collectively refine our purpose and role, and help each other to re-find motivation and focus.
A cycle of adaptation
The current evolving, complex environment means we need to keep coming back to this process: learning, adapting and learning some more. And this needs patience. Because we are tired. And because waiting and boredom may be a necessary part of the process to discover new meaning.
But recognising that boredom is telling us we need to reconnect with meaning, and that the irritable restlessness it brings may supply the energy you need to identify the purpose of your work in this new context may be a help rather than a hindrance. As British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips had it, ‘boredom is akin to free floating attention’ (Phillips 1998). Now is the moment to explore where that attention should be put.