Updated: Mar 23, 2020
By Ellen D. Fiedler & Noks Nauta.
Recognizing bore-out and overcoming it is a significant challenge for many gifted people too many of whom find themselves in tedious, unstimulating situations, feeling as if time is barely dragging by and as if their day-to-day lives have no purpose. The hunger for intellectual challenge that typifies gifted individuals makes them particularly vulnerable to bore-out in the workplace during adulthood. Boredom and bore-out already start earlier in life. Recognizing this feeling and learning to cope effectively wit this is essential for a rich and satisfying life of the gifted.
When gifted children start going to school, they often are disappointed while they had expected much more of this. Ineffective coping may consist of not being motivated for learning any more, cheating, showing aggressive behavior or having mental problems like depressive feelings or addiction to drugs (as a way to fly from reality).
When gifted adults enter the workplace, either for the first time or when changing jobs, they are often confronted with material they already know and a pace that’s too slow for them. Boredom can afflict gifted adults at work but also at home, in college classes, and even in social situations. When they trudge through life day after day without sufficient challenges, this can result in gifted adults suffering from bore-out. We also recognize it in gifted seniors. Bore-out is a condition that has only recently begun to be understood and may actually be the flip side of burnout, a well-known result of ongoing pressure and too much going on in their lives all at once.
In this article we use the experiences of gifted (young) adults to show how important it is that there is attention for boredom in gifted children as early in life as possible.
The concept of burnout has been recognized since the seventies and eighties of the 20th century. People working in health care were especially considered to be at risk. Later it was seen that not only people in these professions were at risk, but also people in other fields. Teachers, housewives, volunteers, people in the “helping professions” who combine work and care, caregivers including family members, and even children can have symptoms of burnout.
Burnout is seen as a result of chronically ineffective coping with stressful situations for significant time periods (longer than about six months). A balance scale is often used as a model for depicting burnout in which one side (their burdens) is not counterbalanced evenly with the other side (their available strengths).
Burnout is not a distinct diagnosis according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a worldwide consensus classification of mental disorders. Maslach et al. developed a test for measuring burnout (Maslach, 1996). The third version of this instrument is currently in use (Maslach et al., 2009).
Symptoms of burnout include exhaustion, cynicism, low self-esteem, and physical complaints. Burnout is thought to be a result from continuing too long in a stressful situation without having enough time for recovery. People start out being fully engaged, but then they put in more and more effort, even though they may realize it is burning them out. They then move more and more toward disengagement. Burnout is a serious condition, and people with symptoms of burnout may need professional help. In our experience, it may take quite a while to recover even with help. Personal factors like wanting to perform their job perfectly also play a role. Often adequate understanding or support from others is missing from their lives, including understanding and support from supervisors at work. Other mental problems such as symptoms of depression occur frequently, regardless of which comes first—bore-out or depression. The effect is a situation that is in need to change .
The recently recognized condition of bore-out is conceived of as the other side of the problem of burnout . Rather than pressure and stress from overstimulation, bore-out is related to understimulation. Two Swiss consultants, Rothlin and Werder (2008), were the first to publish a book about this condition. Ironically, the symptoms of bore-out surprisingly resemble these of burnout—exhaustion and a depressive mood—and so are often not recognized as coming from ongoing boredom.
Rothlin and Werder (2008) studied American data and estimate that about 15% of office staff in general have symptoms of boreout. They write about employees who are "… underchallenged, uninterested, and spend hours each day simulating work. These employees have given up and become resigned to their situation, suffering what is effectively the opposite of office burnout."
Rothlin and Werder used ten yes or no questions to be used as a screening tool for bore-out. They called at least five yeses a high score.
Bore-out is a serious condition. It develops under chronic conditions of understimulation and boredom. People suffering from bore-out may need professional help to recover.
Bore-out can be viewed as a result of chronic boredom. By recognizing boredom in its early stages the development of bore-out can be prevented. Boredom at work is defined by Reijseger et al (2013b) as: “A state of employee unwell-being, that is characterized by relatively low arousal and high dissatisfaction” (p. 508).
Reijseger et al. (2013b) developed the Dutch Boredom Scale (DUBS) in which eight questions are scored on a five-point scale. The DUBS is a brief self-report questionnaire that assesses boredom at work and is more sensitive than the bore-out scale of Rothlin and Werder. The scale includes the following items:
The Dutch Boredom Scale (Reijseger et al., 2013b)
At work time goes by very slowly.
I feel bored at my job.
At work I spend my time aimlessly.
At my job, I feel restless.
During work time I daydream.
It seems as if my working day never ends.
I tend to do other things during my work.
At my work, there is not so much to do.
Reijseger et al. (2013b) argued that (1) boredom at work can be distinguished empirically from related concepts such as work engagement and job burnout; (2) boredom at work results from having an unchallenging, “passive” job; and (3) the subsequent lack of challenge in the form of boredom may result in dissatisfaction with the job and with the organization.
The DUBS was validated using data from 6,315 employees and performing a factor analysis. This supported the factorial and discriminant validity of the DUBS vis-à-vis engagement and burnout. As expected, structural equation modeling revealed that demands and resources were negatively associated with boredom. Moreover, boredom at work was negatively related to job satisfaction and organizational commitment and positively related to turnover intention (Reijseger et al., 2013b).
One way to think about this is that boredom arises from an imbalance between internal expectations on the one side and on the other side from being surrounded by people who are boring and/or boring work. In our opinion the reverse of boredom in its ideal can be seen as “flow” as described by Csikszentmihalyi (2008), a situation in which:
You are completely involved in an activity for its own sake.
The ego falls away.
Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.
Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.
In “flow” high levels of skills are used simultaneously with high levels of challenge.
The pattern of development of bore-out is described by Rothlin and Werder (2008) as includes three elements:
Lack of commitment
The consequences of boredom at work may be immense. On the personal level these include the aforementioned depressive symptoms, as well as physical symptoms, increasing incidents of sick leave, and ultimately disengagement. Furthermore, employers are likely to observe that their employees’ knowledge, skills and abilities begin to decrease and no longer help the employee get basic work done.
Gifted Adults and Boredom
As very little research regarding boredom and bore-out exists, our descriptions are based on what we have seen and continue to see in our professional work with gifted adults. These are combined observations from the USA and the Netherlands. When we look at examples of gifted people who develop bore-out at work we see different patterns. Some people quickly perceive that they feel bored in their workplace. Some do not perceive this at all and may never become aware of this until they get sick and perhaps find a counselor or life coach who tells them about it.
The patterns that we’ve observed can be divided into two categories: being aware or not being aware.
Aware of being bored
Some are able to talk about it in an early stage and ask for more challenging work. This is not always successful though. It depends on the supervisor, the work climate, the way the work is organized, and how the employee starts to talk about it.
Some are not able to talk about being bored. This especially true when they do not have a good relationship with their supervisor or had bad experiences in the past when they tried to talk about their concerns about being bored.
Some people compensate and start to do personal things like looking at their personal mail, booking holidays or reading news sites on their computer. They become masters in switching the screen to work mode when someone comes in.
Some deliberately choose a positive approach by doing things like extra work for others. Some going in more negative directions and start to show counterproductive behavior or get into conflicts because they have too much time to pay attention what other people do (or do not do).
Unaware of being bored
Feeling more and more unhappy, depressed and/or physically sick. After some time they begin calling in sick more and more often.
They compensate for boredom at work with taking on other tasks and doing extra things. (However, their efforts are not always positively accepted.) Or, they may get into various forms of counterproductive behavior, such as wasting time by pursuing personal interests on the computer or on the phone, or becoming hypercritical of others at work including both those in management and their co-workers. In gifted children we may see ‘cheating’ as a result of not being challenged enough. (Maupin, 2015).
They get into conflicts with others as a result of their feeling unhappy (but typically blame others for the conflicts, not realizing that the actual source lay in their own boredom).
In her book, The Gifted Adult, Jacobsen (2000) talked to gifted adults about managing themselves on three specific dimensions related to giftedness: intensity, complexity and drive. We looked at these dimensions as a way to understand the development of boredom in the gifted. Jacobsen provided a table depicting how intensity looks when it is “Collapsed” – the opposite side of the trait of intensity. Her table included several words that are strongly related to or identical with boredom: understimulated and bored, depressed or sullen, whiney or peevish, scattered, apathetic, and devitalized (Jacobsen, 2000, 259 – 262). A similar situation is found in Jacobsen’s tables on collapsed “drive.” The word “boredom” seems to include a wide variety of factors related to giftedness that interact with each other.
The basis for boredom in gifted people is likely to be related to their characteristics as gifted individuals and their needs: extreme curiosity, the burning hunger for information, high energy levels, and—as Jacobsen identified—intensity, complexity and drive. Not knowing their own needs, not being challenged, not using their talents, and not having kindred spirits in their lives typically result in a gifted person’s sense of being bored. They may also have feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, etc., depending on their prior experiences. Framing these feelings into the more concrete idea of boredom may be a catalyst for their changing their lives. This can be helpful to them in finding how they can better clarify their needs so that they can seek greater fulfillment.
Gifted individuals suffering from ongoing boredom find that their lives lack meaning. As psychologist James Webb discussed in his book Searching for Meaning, lives without meaning can lead to disillusionment and depression. As Webb observed, “Bright, intense, sensitive, caring, idealistic people are more likely to be disillusioned than many others...” (Webb, 2013, p. 63). Webb suggested that disillusionment is something that these bright adults must learn to deal with, finding an evolving understanding of the world and their place in it by making personal choices and by developing successful coping strategies so that they find a reasonable degree of peace of mind.
In her coaching practice for gifted adults Van de Ven (2015) sees a connection between the way people use their talents and the development of either bore-out or burnout. She describes how individuals can use the CoreTalent method developed by Krekels, who makes a distinction between strong and small CoreTalents. Using their small CoreTalents too much may lead to burnout; whereas using too few of their strong CoreTalents may lead to bore-out.
Some Relevant Empirical Research
Two interesting quantitative studies were conducted by Reijseger et al. (2013, 2014) with large groups of workers in the Netherlands as benchmarks. These researchers used online questionnaires to assess a group of gifted workers regarding their feelings at work. More than 1250 Dutch gifted workers participated in their first study, and more than 875 in the second one. Respondents were recruited by the Gifted Adults Foundation (IHBV) via LinkedIn Groups for gifted people, Mensa, emails to organizations that work with gifted children, etc.. Questions were also included to assess the robustness of the giftedness of the respondents. Gifted workers (employees and freelancers) were found to experience significantly (p<.001) more boredom at work compared to the benchmark groups. Gifted employees experienced more boredom than gifted freelancers.
Research-inspired Insights for Supervisors and Managers
When gifted workers were asked: “What is a good supervisor for you?”, their responses provide insights for how managers that can help them mitigate boredom and prevent bore-out for their employees. For instance, gifted workers were found to need autonomy and trust (Nauta et al., 2012; Ronner et al., 2012). Some tasks are more suitable for gifted individuals than other tasks. Furthermore, consideration needs to be given to the qualities of the interactions between gifted employees and their supervisors, with attention being paid to the specific needs of gifted workers (for instance, asking them about their preferred way of working and trust them) and offering a climate in which the gifted workers will optimally make use of their talents.
Gifted workers who are in unchallenging jobs can also find themselves feeling as if they are lost in the crowd, having a sense of being terribly alone and unable to find anyone else with whom they otherwise might feel connected. The lack of kindred spirits in the workplace and the failure to find like-minded colleagues can also contribute to boredom and subsequently to bore-out. These insights are likewise important for teachers and educators of the gifted earlier in life.
Some recommendations for gifted workers to find other people they can relate to include the following ideas:
Ask other people at work about their interests; see if you can join in with those who are participating in activities that interest you—whether at work or elsewhere.
Bring a book with you to work that you are reading and respond to anyone who shows an interest in it, sharing your thoughts about what you’re reading.
Get involved outside of work in groups that are doing things you really care about and talk about your activities in informal settings at work (e.g., during break time or at lunch or when leaving work at the end of the day).
From Theory to Practice: Selected Case Studies
From theory we now move on to practice. In the following section we briefly summarize case studies of gifted (young) adults, organized by their stages of life. The authors know these people personally from their professional work, and their real life stories, are chosen as illustrations. In each case we give examples of how to cope and avoid bore-out.
Janna: A young gifted graduate
Janna was a gifted 21-year-old who had recently graduated from college as a History major. She was working in an entry-level job with a big corporation that she hoped would eventually become challenging and absorbing. But, it wasn’t starting out that way, and she was becoming increasingly bored and lethargic, either staring out the window or spending her time surfing the Internet at work. Nonetheless, she was aware of what was going on with her, so she tried hard to watch for any opportunities that might present themselves to make her job more interesting.
One day Janna heard about a project at work that sounded really intriguing—something she thought where she thought his skills and talents could be put to use. Before she approached her supervisor about working on this project, she remembered something recently read about on the Internet about how to develop a “functional resume”—an approach that was quite different from how she had written her job application. She included skills and accomplishments from both paid work and volunteering, showcasing abilities that might not have been obvious to the manager in charge of the project. Because of this, the project manager agreed to give her a chance to work on the project on a trial basis, and she found her energy and enthusiasm starting to return (Fiedler, (2015).
Ralph and Amy: Gifted parents struggling to cope
Ralph and Amy are two young working parents who are both gifted. Although they are very busy with their children, parenthood hasn’t been very interesting for them, especially during now when they are raising very young children, which leaves them little opportunity for intellectual stimulation at home, let alone any chance for having meaningful discussions., They have constant interruptions because of the need to pay attention to their children. At the end of the evening, they are scrambling to take care of basic tasks, such as housework and getting ready for the next day.
Neither of them have very challenging jobs, either. This is partly due to the fact that they both chose jobs just to help enhance the family income and leave them time for their children. So, they both are bored both at work and at home, but they do not know how to cope with this.
When their children’s grandparents invited the children for a weekend visit for, Amy and Ralph chose to take advantage of that time to seek some kind of solution to their problems. Each of them first wrote down all of their feelings and their thoughts about what might help. Then, they started talking to each other. They discovered that they both really wanted to make some changes even though they hadn’t mentioned it each other. As they shared what each of them had written, they discovered some that they each had some of the same creative ideas on their lists. Then, they started making plans for how to break through their boredom both at home and at work (Fiedler, 2015).
The first solution that they decided to try was for them to make arrangements with their children’s grandparents to provide childcare for the children once a week so that Amy and Ralph could get away together. They wanted to participate in some lectures and cultural events in their community, combined with a casual dinner out either before or after that week’s event where they could have some meaningful time to talk with each. They promised each other that they would not use that time to talk about mundane issues like finances and family schedules; instead, they’d use it for discussing ideas—many of which were an outgrowth of the interesting events that they were attending.
Their second set of ideas for solving the problems they were having was aimed at more long-term solutions for their boredom with their jobs. They made plans for one of them to start looking for more interesting work right away. They flipped a coin to decide who would go first, with a promise that the other one would do likewise as soon as their children were all in school.
Yolanda: Stalled in mid-life
Yolanda is a 41 year old IT specialist in Information Technology (I.T.). She worked for a large company, and she was part of a team. She did her work well, but after about two years she found that she often did not have enough work to do. When she asked for more, her supervisor said that it was not possible, because the work is done in sequential order and she was disrupting the progress because of her speed. Yolanda then did some volunteer work at her company—organizing the parties at work, etc. She also started doing volunteer work for others in her community during her working hours. She was not very happy with that, but her repeated requests for more and more challenging or complicated assignments did not result in any improvement. She started to experience physical and mental complaints. She also found that experiences from her childhood started to haunt her. Yolanda had already learned about her giftedness. When she realized that she needed help for her psychological problems, and she got a referral to a psychologist. When she talked about her problems to her psychologist, she realized that the symptoms of bore-out applied very much to her situation.
Some months later Yolanda started in another job. She was hopeful. But within six months she reported that she is experiencing the same problems and feels bored, bored, bored. Her supervisor is not happy with her. Yolanda has the feeling that he does not give her enough opportunities to show her talents. Her contract will expire soon. She is in a better mental and financial situation now compared to a previous time when she left a job. In addition, she now receives a small pension that gives her time to sort out what she will do next. So, she has begun making plans for what she will do once her contract is up.
Harriet: A gifted older adult
Harriet (now 72) never completed a university degree after she left school. She had been divorced and was a single mom. Later in life she got a college degree and had some interesting jobs in social work. However, looking backwards now, she thinks she was not challenged at that time as much as she thinks she could have been. Also, she always felt that she was not smart at all and had a big problem with her weight. Her overweight also exacerbated her experiencing low self-esteem.
This older gifted woman never knew she was gifted. However, two of her grandchildren are gifted, and when she was almost 70 she started to think about herself as possibly being gifted because of their stories. It took some time, along with talking with one of the authors (NN), to accept herself as she is. Now she knows that she may be gifted, too, and that has been a revelation that has led her to creating several different activities for herself and others like her. For instance she started organizing a welcome group and a reading group in the building where she lives. Also she organized a “fair” about death and dying (with shops and professionals) and a series of lectures that were interesting for other elder people like her. She soon started to feel much better, mentally and physically and even lost a lot of weight. Her overweight was related to her low self-esteem but may have also been connected with being bored. In the past when she was really hungry for more to think about and to do that would be interesting to her, she tended to head to the kitchen for something to eat and especially was inclined to binge on sweets. Once she was involved in other activities, she found that she hardly ever slipped into these old eating habits.
Suggestions for gifted adults
In order to prevent boredom in the workplace, gifted adults need challenges and opportunities to grapple with stimulating concepts and intriguing information. They need to have a chance to share their ideas as well as to find new approaches for doing their work. As Fiedler (2012) stated, “Ideally, they will find themselves in circumstances where needs for day-to-day stimulation are met. This is not necessarily a ‘given’ in today’s world where appropriate positions that are a good match for their gifts and talents tend to be scarce or, at best, difficult for them to find.” (p. 24)
In general gifted people are advised to develop greater understanding of their own needs and to communicate about these needs. This may be a challenge. Here are some recommendations, most of which are selected from a recent book by one of the authors (Fiedler, 2015):
Monitor and assess your own personal responses to different situations; take time to adapt.
Keep a regular journal to help you sort out your thoughts and feelings about yourself and your life.
Look for inspiration: inspiring people, role models, inspiring situations, inspiring quotations.
Look for small targets, things you can succeed in.
Collect a file of your successes, perhaps making them into a scrapbook.
Gather data that demonstrates your abilities and provides documentation of your past experience (including both paid and volunteer work); present this information when appropriate.
Learn, learn, learn.
When gifted adults enter the workplace, either for the first time or when changing jobs, they are often confronted with material they already know and a pace that’s too slow for them. They soon begin to experience boredom that eventually can lead to bore-out. They have trouble maintaining a reasonable level of productivity, especially when they are in entry-level jobs in the workplace. They often face underemployment with supervisors who have little idea of their capabilities and simply want them to do the job they were hired for, and they often have problems communicating what they really can do (Fiedler, 2015). The entry-level positions that they find themselves in can also result in their becoming lost in the crowd, feeling terribly alone and unable to find anyone else with whom they otherwise might feel connected. “Gifted adults may have to search far and wide to find others who share their sometimes esoteric interests or even to find someone who laughs at their sometimes quirky jokes” (Fiedler, 2009, p. 170).
Some suggestions that can help gifted workers who find themselves skating on the brink of bore-out include the following:
Make an appointment with your supervisor at work and respectfully discuss your concerns, ask for his/her suggestions, and offer any thoughts about what you can contribute; listen carefully to the responses you get and respond quietly and calmly.
See what you can do to make the work more meaningful—perhaps offering to take on related projects that pique your interest. (Fiedler, 2015).
When talking to supervisors here are some recommendations for gifted workers to consider:
Prepare what you’re going to say and practice the talk, for instance with a good friend.
Ask yourself: What do you want to achieve?
Show what you have to offer.
Ask for concrete things (you do not have to use the word “gifted”)
Strive for tact when communicating with supervisors and colleagues who are threatened by what you know and can do.
Boredom and bore-out are serious risks for gifted people. Although the research supporting this statement is still scarce, different examples in practice reveal how gifted adults who grapple with bore-out can overcome its debilitating effects on their lives. Additional research on boredom and bore-out in gifted people is very necessary in order to support practical advice.
By exploring the mechanisms of bore-out in reaction to giftedness, gifted people can be guided in finding ways to prevent and overcome it, preferably as early in life as possible. This will make their lives much more meaningful and satisfying and will help them become healthier and happier. We are convinced that our findings are very important for people working with gifted children.
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Van de Ven, R. (2015). Burnout en Boreout in relatie tot KernTalenten en Hoogbegaafdheid. (Burnout and boreout in relation to CoreTalents.) Retrieved from: http://riannevdven.nl/kerntalenten. (Translation in English available from the author.)
Webb, J. T. (2013). Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment, and hope. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Dr. Ellen D. Fiedler is a Professor Emerita of Gifted Education at Northeastern Illinois University.
Dr. Noks Nauta is the co-founded of the Gifted Adults Foundation in the Netherlands.