Working Hard or Hardly Working: Bore Out and Underemployment

“I took a few days off because I couldn’t handle it any more. I had even gotten ready in the morning and I was ready to start work at 9. I pulled into the parking lot and the thought of just sitting there all day doing absolutely nothing-” My friend paused and shuddered visibly “-I basically had a mental break down.”

My friend’s story was no stranger to me. I had experienced something similar, having worked in a company which was largely overstaffed with a culture of inefficiency, resulting in hours of my day wasted, quietly staring at my computer screen. Just like my friend, I felt like I was on the verge of a mental breakdown and dreaded going to work. The only thing that kept me in the role was the fact that I was being paid to be there, and a sense of guilt knowing that other comparable graduates would have been grateful to be in my position. Being underworked brought with it a whole suite of mental health stressors. I struggled with feelings of guilt, inadequacy and uselessness. Being underworked exhausted me in ways being overworked could not due to the combined pressures of the swirling negative emotions and the lack of stimulation I experienced five days a week.

Bore out and its links to underemployment

Little did we know at the time, my friend and I were contributing to Australia’s underemployment statistic of 8.5% as of February 2015 (the ABS is due to release further, updated labour statistics later on in the year, which I will update on once that is released). The concept of “underemployment” can refer to situations where:

  • Employees are engaged in work but have the capacity and desire to work further hours;
  • Employees perform roles they are vastly overqualified for, and, most relevantly to this article:
  • Employees are engaged by an organisation in a “labour hoarding” situation, where workers are employed but are not utilised to an extent where they are economically productive.

My friend and I were being “labour hoarded”, working in organisations that were overstaffed and could afford to be, or had become too complacent to trim the fat. As miserable as we were, my friend and I were in an advantageous position compared to some other underemployed workers- we were working full time and were paid as such. We may have been dissatisfied in our roles, but at least we did not have a wealth of leisure time with no means of funding it, and therefore experienced little financial stress.

Underemployment represents the level of slack that has accumulated in our labour market and represents two problems:

  1. That the Australian economy is sitting on a large source of untapped potential in the form of underutilised employees, and
  2. Low wage growth- that is, Australian wages are falling in real terms.

I am not an economist, but it is commonly accepted that some wage growth is correlated with economic growth and a higher standard of living (please don’t quote me on this). Aside from the overall economic impact of underemployment, being engaged to be in an unproductive role can be one of the most dissatisfying things you could ever experience.

Combatting the detrimental effects of bore out

In May 2016, 44 year-old Parisian Frédéric Desnard sued his former employer, claiming they had placed him in a bore out situation he described as a “descent into hell” (article by Kim Willsher here: Oh dear. Before calling your lawyer, take a deep breath. I have some tips on how to handle it, as someone who’s been there and done that.

  1. Are you sure there’s nothing to do?

An obvious question that can be overlooked, it is possible that there is work available, but you simply haven’t been informed of it. Ask your supervisor for more tasks for you to do, and if he or she says no, don’t be scared to say that you’re “here to help in any way I can”. Depending on the office culture and your supervisor’s preferences, it may be possible to pick up tasks from other departments, so ask around.

  1. Are you sure that you’re being labour hoarded?

Gulp. A hard question that can be overlooked is to consider whether you’re actually being underutilised for reasons outside of your control (due to legislative, economic, or organisational structures and limits), or because you’ve been underperforming. Asking for feedback from your supervisor may give you some insights into whether you have been performing your role effectively, and if you haven’t, there may be a chance that you’re being overlooked for projects and tasks due to mistakes you’ve made or your performance in the past.

Arrange for some time with your supervisor to discuss your performance. If there are some issues in particular you’re concerned with, write a list. Before going into the meeting, try your best to remain professional: don’t get defensive, emotional or aggressive if your supervisor’s assessment is not positive. Ask for clarity on any critique and for examples of how you could have done better.

After the meeting, take some time to reflect. Evaluate the comments you received and come up with some ideas on how you plan to take in any criticism you received and how you plan to address those issues. Discuss this plan with your supervisor. An active approach to addressing performance issues may help your supervisor become more open to issuing you with further tasks, or placing you onto new projects.

What if the feedback is positive?

If the feedback you receive is positive, you can use this as an indication that you are meeting your company’s expectations. What you glean from that information (whether it be pride, satisfaction or sheer surprise) is up to you.

  1. What is your next step?

You may have received some feedback that’s helped you to realise you have room for improvement and to grow in the organisation. That’s great and I wish you all the best. However, if you’ve come to the decision that you’d like to move on, it’s time to decide your next step, taking into consideration your career goals, financial situation, and personal situation.

In my friend’s case, she jumped ship the moment she was hired by her new employer, a firm that was more than happy to give her challenging work.

In my case, I stuck around for a while. I knew that I was making more than the market rate of that position at the time, and wanted to strengthen my financial situation before moving on. In the meantime, I made the most of (the few) tasks that were given me, proactively chased new projects where I could and got to know my co-workers a bit better. While that did make my situation more bearable, I knew that every day I spent in the role was bringing me backwards in terms of my career development. I was unfulfilled and felt like I wasn’t being challenged: I had decided some time ago that it wasn’t the right fit for me and I knew the longer I waited, the longer I would remain stagnant.

Once I was able to dedicate myself to a different role, my mental health improved considerably. I had a more positive outlook overall, and felt stimulated and challenged by my work. I found myself finally looking forward to going to work, and lingering at my desk to finish a task rather than watch the minutes trickle by. My experience in being underworked and “bored out” is the reason for why prefer being overworked and stressed to a level. I will never complain about new challenges and high-pressure situations again, knowing how the alternative feels. Like my friend, I shudder to even think about it.


Thank you to my friend for allowing me to share her story. 

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