This week a rare thing happened – some members of the public felt sorry for a politician. Nigel Mills, a Conservative MP, was caught playing Candy Crush Saga (an idiotic but addictive computer game) during a House of Commons committee meeting on pension reform. On the face of it his behaviour might seem outrageous – he was involved in deciding the fate of a crucial area of government policy that will impact the fate of all Britons.
And yet many of us recognise the MP’s quandry. Sitting through a long meeting about the detail of pensions is hardly riveting stuff and is likely to lull even the most focused soul to sleep. We have all been forced to sit through similar kinds of meetings. Our attention wanders and to stop ourselves falling asleep we look for a diversion. Some day dream, some sleep, some doodle. Mills’ preferred diversion appears to be playing computer games.
A common affliction
Being bored at work is a common affliction. A survey by Gallup found that 71% of US employees are either “disengaged” or “actively disengaged” with their work. This means they find little identification between their work and who they are. When this happens employees tend to find their jobs uninteresting and tedious.
One of the aspects of work we often find most boring are meetings. The irony is that people spend increasingly large swathes of their days in these boredom hot spots. Some estimate that employees can spend 25% of their working day in meetings. And the number is much higher for some groups of managers. Plus, the number of meetings seem to have increased in the last thirty years. About one third of the time which we spend in these meetings are deemed to be unproductive.
But the question of why people get bored has perplexed social scientists. Some have suggested boredom is about individual personality, where some people are more likely than others to get bored. For example, one study found that people who are highly dogmatic, less sociable, and have low levels of persistence tend to become bored more easily. Another study suggests that narcissists are more likely to become bored easily.
Yet personality is not the only reason why people become bored in work settings. A vital driver of boredom is the nature of their job. It is no surprise that people who do not have enough tasks to do while they are on the job tend to become bored. The other kind of job where people tend to become extremely bored is when they have plenty of work to do, but it is too easy and does not stretch their abilities.
Boredom can have potentially disturbing consequences for individuals as well as the workplace as whole. Some studies in psychology suggest that people who are prone towards boredom are more likely to take risky courses of action. Boredom can prompt people to seek out exciting experiences through taking unwarranted risks.
For example, one study shows a tendency toward addictive behaviour like gambling and another toward destructive behaviour like high levels of risk taking and conflict with team members. By taking big risks or fighting with others, people in a boring situation are trying to avoid an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness.
So Nigel Mills’ approach is relatively harmless. Retreating into yourself by doing other work-related tasks (like checking emails), or doing non-work related tasks (like doodling or playing computer games) is often a way of psychologically removing yourself from the boring situation – albeit momentarily.
Coping with boredom
A recent study by sociologist Roland Paulsen looked at how employees whose life was blighted by boredom coped. After speaking to a range of people who spent over 50% of their day doing non-work tasks he found a range of tactics employees used to get through the day. What is surprising is that people seemed to apply a nascent work ethic to what we would normally consider to be leisure pursuits.
Some would use their day to diligently play their way through complex computer games. Others would systematically read all the articles written by a particular journalist. Still others would busy themselves preening their social network.
In other workplaces, there was a chronic, almost institutional, lack of work. In one – described by one employee as a “big playground for adults” – employees only spent one hour a day on actual work tasks. The rest of the time they’d spend chatting and joking over messenger, exchanging web links, discussing where to eat lunch and most of all, surfing the web for their own pleasure.
Some might feel affronted by Nigel Mills indulging in a few games of Candy Crush during a committee meeting. But attempting to temporarily relieve the boredom of such meetings through a relatively harmless computer game might be seen as far more preferable to the other potential outcomes of boredom: aggressively taking risk and needlessly fighting with colleagues. These other ways would have inevitably slowed down the policy process and likely lead to worse outcomes.
We might even see MPs playing computer games during committee meetings as a good thing. Perhaps we shouldn’t go as far as doling out tablets with games preloaded onto them or installing a member’s lounge where they can compete against one another on Guitar Hero or PlayStation. But maybe, allowing politicians to temporarily relieve their boredom through a spot of harmless Candy Crush will stop them from using the political process as an opportunity to keep themselves interested.