I was contacted by a journalist with The Guardian, a popular UK newspaper, for my thoughts about why having too little to do at work is bad for your mental health. I am reposting my responses below.
Question: Is having too little to do, or being under-stimulated, at work similar to being overworked?
Answer: If we assume that having too little to do or being under-stimulated at work falls under the umbrella of boredom (Mann, 2007) and that there’s a relationship between boredom at work and employee mental well-being (Warr, 2005), and that mental health is comprised of many dimensions (two of which are subjective well-being and positive self-regard), then being bored at work (not enough to do or not stimulated) and being overworked are similar, albeit they occupy different points on the spectrum. With regard to being overworked, researchers have found that changes in job demands predict future burnout (Schaufeli, Bakker, & Van Rhenen, 2009).
Question: Is having too little to do, or being under-stimulated at work, bad for your mental health? If so, why does this cause stress/poor mental health?
Answer: Related to my previous answer, being bored (having too little to do or being under-stimulated and when associated with poor mental well-being & poor positive self-regard) and being overworked can both be bad for a person’s mental health.
When we talk about an employee’s subjective well-being, it’s important to distinguish between “context-free” well-being and “domain-specific” well-being (Warr, 2005). A person’s well-being with respect to his or her job is a job-related “domain-specific” well-being (i.e., limited to the workplace & job). It’s also possible and we do see this happen, where it’s family-related “domain-specific” well-being. That is, situations in an employee’s family life/environment have a negative impact on his/her subjective well-being and the employee carries this into the workplace.
We can see how just these two streams in the “domain-specific” well-being can be challenging to separate within a person’s mental state of mind. Put it simply, we can take work stress home, but the reverse is also true, we can just as easily take home stress with us to work.
One very important note we need to remember is this: an employee’s job may influence his/her well-being, the employee’s well-being may impact how he/she perceives the job, or characteristics of the employee can determine well-being or perception of the job (Warr, 2005). Also critical to mental health are feelings that we have about ourselves as a person. In addition to subjective well-being is the concept of positive self-regard. We can think of positive self-regard in terms of a person’s self-esteem, self-acceptance, and self-worth (Warr, 2005).
Question: What is the optimum level of work for good mental health?
Answer: There is no magic formula for what level of work would contribute to good mental health. As I have shared, the reason is because the factors that lead to good or poor mental health are many and they can be difficult to separate from other related factors (Warr, 2005).
That said, there are still things that organizations can do to help their employees stay engaged in their jobs.
In his book The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman (2014) shared that one key lesson to getting employees engaged in their work is to offer “opportunities for them to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness on a daily basis.” He explained that employee autonomy is when workers have a sense of choice. Companies can promote employee autonomy by explaining the reason/logic when tasks are presented, by giving employees the flexibility about how and when a task is done, and by giving employees options on where they can do their work (e.g., telecommuting).
Takeaway: If we tie our discussion about boredom at work (i.e., having too little to do or being under-stimulated) as well as being overworked to mean being generally dissatisfied with a job, then there’s a strong connection between job dissatisfaction and mental health. Research suggests that an employee’s level of job satisfaction is an important factor influencing his or her health (Faragher, Cass, & Cooper, 2005). In analyzing nearly 500 studies involving over 250,000 employees, researchers have found a very “strong relationship between job satisfaction and both mental and physical health,” and that “dissatisfaction at work can be hazardous to an employee’s mental health and well-being” (Faragher, Cass, & Cooper, 2005, p. 108).
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor
Faragher, E.B., Cass, M., & Cooper, C.L. (2005). The relationship between job satisfaction and health: a meta-analysis. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 62(2), 105-112. doi:10.1136/oem.2002.006734
Friedman, R. (2014). The best place to work: The art and science of creating an extraordinary workplace. New York: Perigee.
Mann, S. (2007, February). Boredom at work. The Psychologist, 20, 90-93. Retrieved from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-20/edition-2/boredom-work
Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Van Rhenen, W. (2009). How changes in job demands and resources predict burnout, work engagement, and sickness absenteeism. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(7), 893-917. doi:10.1002/job.595
Warr, P. (2005). Work, well-being and mental health. In J. Barling, E. K. Kelloway, & M. R. Frone (Eds.), Handbook of work stress (pp. 547-574). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.