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There, but not there: Is your team suffering from ‘presenteeism?’

Being aware of—and addressing—employee boredom can reduce mental health days and boost the bottom line.

There, but not there: Is your team suffering from ‘presenteeism?’
[Photo: NordWood Themes/Unsplash]

Boredom at work is one of the clearest indicators of a company culture in decline. It comes from a lack of connection to the company purpose and manifests in sick days and presenteeism.

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Mental health days have become ubiquitous in most companies, whether the executive level is aware of it or not. It’s a day when an employee calls in sick to rest their brains from the constant demands of work, and it provides a much-needed rest from the grind, especially when the grind is unfulfilling. Frequent one-day illnesses are a strong indicator that people are bored in your office.

Presenteeism occurs when you show up to the office without your brain fully engaged. Brain scans show that when tasks are repetitive or boring, your brain reduces blood flow to improve efficiency, getting the familiar job done while leaving the mind free to scan for potential dangers. The wandering mind gravitates toward negativity and anxiety because, from an evolutionary perspective, looking for problems (such as predators) insured survival.

In the office, this combination of boredom and scanning for problems can contribute to a toxic workplace. For the nonessential employee working from home, the anxiety that creeps in can lead to obsessively doom-scrolling news sites or bouncing aimlessly from task to task as they scan Slack to make sure they’re the first to add an emoji on each new post to show that they’re “working.”

Boredom and burnout

Boredom is the unsettling feeling that time is not well spent and potential is underused. It’s the anxiety that takes over when life is eaten up by tasks that don’t align with values and larger life goals. Busy boredom, getting so wrapped up in accomplishing tasks that you forget about the reasons you are doing them, is a form of workaholism. It’s also the first step on the road to burnout.

Burnout in the form of sick days and presenteeism costs organizations $120 to $190 billion a year.

Cures for boredom

When you’re struggling with boredom, the most important first step is to identify where you derive purpose. What activities make you feel like your work has value?

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  • Being of service to others through a mission.
  • Creating something new.
  • Forging strong workplace relationships and culture.
  • Achieving financial gain.

Clarity in your source of purpose is important for more than just avoiding boredom at work. A sense of purpose can lower inflammation, increase antiviral response, regulate blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, and decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and death. In a 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looking at 6,985 adults over 50 years old, people without a strong purpose were twice as likely to die within the four-year study period.

3 tips to prevent boredom on your team

Allocate work using energy management instead of time management. To effectively manage a team, you must learn each person’s key motivators. To keep your team engaged, tie the team mission to those of the individuals and make sure that each person is responsible for the work that aligns most closely to their own sense of purpose.

Create a purpose infographic or a team-level mantra to unify purpose and mission. Make a slide that everyone can print out and hang in their workspace to keep purpose front of mind, or write a slogan for your team that’s easy to remember. Most importantly, do it together so everyone feels connected to the resulting tool and is more likely to use it.

Do a quick check-in before team meetings to evaluate connection to the mission. Ask people to briefly share a recent example of work that they completed that felt purposeful to them.

Regardless of your industry, success is connected to avoiding boredom through cultivating purpose and feeling like a challenged and valued part of your team. The organizations that support their employees in this endeavor will see significant results in fulfilled individuals who show up completely, every day, and increase the bottom line through retention, output, and innovation.


Through her teaching at Stanford Business School and with her company Skylyte Inc., Leah Weiss supports teams and leaders to implement data-driven approaches to resilience. Her book, How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind, has been acclaimed by everyone from the Dalai Lama to The New York Times.

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