4 Ways to Burn Out, Effort-Free

Bored? Dissatisfied? Disinterested? You're well on your way to burning out!

Young businessman sitting in office with notes over eyes.
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Job burnout: The phrase might conjure up images of work-obsessed lawyers sneakily checking their BlackBerrys from the front row of their kids' elementary school plays or from the sidelines of their soccer games. But it should probably also bring to mind images of desk drones mindlessly filling out spreadsheets, preparing TPS reports, and shooting spitballs toward the ceiling. Indeed, the state of being perpetually underworked may be about as exhaustion-inducing as that of always having more work than you can handle.

A book to be released in the United States this fall—it was published last year in Europe—pins this label on the epidemic of underchallenged workers: "boreout." Philippe Rothlin and Peter Werder, coauthors of Boreout! Overcoming Workplace Demotivation, estimate that about 15 percent of workers are headed toward this state of chronic boredom and total resignation.

For those employees who would like to stay wholly underutilized, here are four quick ways to burn out (or bore out) without doing much at all:

Don't ask for additional work. You might be bored out of your mind, but at least you've got time to pay your electric bill and surf Amazon for the best Father's Day book. If you started actively seeking additional projects, you might have to stop pretending to work and actually, gulp, do real labor.

For those who spend the 9-to-5 hours in a bleary haze of boredom, take comfort that you're in good company. "There is an epidemic in this country of disengaged, dissatisfied employees," says Ford Myers, president of Career Potential, a career consultancy and outplacement firm. "It costs companies billions and billions every year in lost productivity."

A 2005 Salary.com survey found the average worker wasted a little more than two hours of every eight-hour day on personal activities. And fully one third of employees surveyed said they wasted time because they didn't have enough work.

Work at home or communicate only through E-mail and IM. The more time you can spend in mind-numbing isolation, poking at your keyboard and reading through your spam folder, the better to reach a state of burnout. Indeed, isolating work can contribute to employee drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

A sense of being isolated comes when solitary workers are not getting necessary support from supervisors and peers, says Jay Mulki, an assistant professor at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration who has studied workplace isolation among telecommuters and office workers. "That leads to stress in the sense that a person feels that he's not visible, nobody cares about him, his achievements are not known, nobody cares about whether he has done his work or not," Mulki says. "And he also feels that, most of the time, somebody may feel that he is goofing off."

Physical distance contributes to the sense of being isolated, but even employees who work elbow-to-elbow with others can experience the lonely sensation, Mulki says. It can happen if coworkers communicate solely through E-mail or instant messaging, or if a job requires such constant tasking—as with call-center employees—that it allows no time for connecting.

To combat isolation, employees need to make a point of talking about their accomplishments regularly with their supervisor. Telecommuters can seek out local mentors or find other nearby telecommuters to occasionally share their work space, Mulki says.

Sit back and wait for directions. Job burnout can result from a lack of control over aspects of work like your hours or which projects you're working on, according to the Mayo Clinic. While some employees really don't have a say in schedules or workloads, many have probably never asserted a preference. Sitting around waiting for your boss to tell you exactly what to do and when to do it is a sure-fire way to feel like your job is totally out of your control.

Granted, workers often face tough, unyielding bureaucracies. Much of corporate America is still not interested in granting employees' desire for more control and influence, Myers says. But, he adds, even in that context: "You don't get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate for."