Boredom vs. Stress at Work: Is There a Lesser Evil?

Somehow you need to stay on top of the hill.

Somehow you need to stay on top of the hill.

Recently, I’ve started settling into my job and instead of constantly stressful it’s more like…constantly mediocre. Sure, there’s still the odd transaction here and there where I make a small mistake or don’t know one thing or another. And there’s the everyday stress of the job (e.g. long lines, unpleasant customers) but these are all fairly mundane. The job isn’t so much an insurmountable challenge as a swamp that I have to wade myself through for a few days or so.

My schedule is working three days on and then the rest of the week off. It’s a nice schedule and I think I can deal with the amount of hours they’ve given me (slightly less than 20). So at this point it’s just a game of seeing how long I can survive this job and then move on to do something else that is hopefully better.

My book tour is coming in October so I’m hoping to give them my two weeks / notice of absence in mid-September. And yeah, sometimes thinking about that is stressful but that’s farther away and something external to the job.

So I’ve been contemplating lately whether it’s “better” to be bored and feel like you’re in a really mediocre spot or it’s better to feel stressed out. Stress is going to be more likely to cause health problems than boredom is and I’ve discussed that at length many times on this blog. On the other hand, stressful situations often make you get lost in whatever you are doing and then the time starts flying by a bit more.

But with boring situations it just seems like time keeps dragging until you’re (somehow) out of it. There’s a sludgy aspect to it that is really unpleasant and that’s especially the case when you don’t enjoy what you’re doing anyways. The whole aspect of it being demeaning starts becoming this force that is slowly pushing down on you over time.

So which is worse?

Well, there’s no “good” answer here and we could draw all of the presidential analogies we wanted. Honestly, Hillary would be my choice for “boring” since she is just another establishment liberal, while Donald Trump is the stress aspect. His unpredictability is incredibly bizarre to witness and the thought of him actually getting into power to exercise that unpredictability is not something I’d look forward to.

As an anarchist though, I don’t intend to vote for either and in any case I think we should abolish work. So picking either of these as the “better” option seems like a losing scenario to me. But that also being said I think there are some “benefits” to the boredom situation. For one thing, not being stressed is likely better for you than plain boredom.

Past that obvious fact though there are also the facts that boredom can be dealt a lot more calmly than stress can. Sometimes stress and boredom can coincide but usually that’s when you’re on your own rather then when you are at work. The only exception to this I can think of is when you don’t have anything to do and get stressed about a co-worker or boss yelling at you for not doing anything. But if you’re in that scenario, you can always get creative with “new tasks”.

There are also seems to be a fundamental difference between (say) the boredom I experienced last night while trying to decide how I wanted to take a Mental Health Day and the boredom I experience at work. The anxiety I feel at home comes from the amount of options I have, while the anxiety at work comes from the amount of constraints I have.

These are two very different types of anxieties and they need to be dealt with in their own way.

For work, I simply found something I knew I couldn’t be yelled at (mop the floor when it was really gross) and by myself I did something that would engage my mind more (play challenging video games). In either case, boredom helps us get creative about our problems and forces us to think harder about what we want out of a given situation.

If at work, you’re stressed and unsure what to do you can always try to ask your co-worker or (barring that) try to do a routine task that they likely wouldn’t get upset at you for. Pushing merchandise forward (always a retail favorite!), mopping or generally cleaning the store, talking to a customer about their purchase, etc.

And then there’s always hitting the coolers, which I’ve talked about before.

I think the fact that work forces us into these unhealthy dichotomies is another way that it boxes us in to a more generally unhealthy life. The fact that it’s even a discussion about whether it’s worse for work to bore us or stress us and that this is a conversation I can imagine resonates to others doesn’t point to good work conditions in society.

As a general rule I don’t believe in “lesser evils” and don’t think that those sorts of conversations are even worth exploring in much detail. But when you’re forced into that choice via economic conditions (thankfully not the case for the election) it becomes necessary to some extent to discuss “least worst” options.

And despite my hesitancy about even remotely endorsing it, given how creative boredom can sometimes make us, I’d have to say that you’re probably better off being bored than stressed. It’s true that stress can also make you creative but that creativity often comes from too much pressure and not from insufficient pressure.

The former can make you careless and exercise your ideas in ultimately unhelpful ways, while boredom can often give you the space you need to make the better choice. Which isn’t to say either of these things are pleasant experiences or getting my full recommendation but I think the prospects for liberation come more from boredom, than stress.

On the other hand, I could be wrong.

Boy, that’s a bit stressful, huh?


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2 thoughts on “Boredom vs. Stress at Work: Is There a Lesser Evil?

  1. I find that both boredom and stress are equally draining, even if in their different ways. Both leave my energy levels so depleted that it affects my ability to do meaningful or creative activities of my own choosing afterwards. What makes boredom at work even more damaging are the many constraints that often go with it, and that mean that we cannot ease the sense of boredom in any way (in this sense, I don`t think that being bored in a mediocre job can possibly make us more creative).

    For example: I used to work as a receptionist with literally nothing to do during the early or late shifts but to watch the automatic revolving door go around by itself for hours. I could feel my cognitive skills withering away, my brain cells dying and my soul suffocating. I was not allowed to read a book, study, write or draw – anything that would have eased the painful boredom with absolutely nothing else to do. These shifts left we absolutely exhausted afterwards.

    • Hi, Larissa.

      Thanks for your comment and I think you made some good points. The reason why I said boredom can sometimes give us more room to be creative is because when we are bored at job we (sometimes) find the ability to go around the rules to make our time a little easier while stress usually doesn’t give us that chance.

      Anyways, if there are many limitations on our job then either may just be as stressful as the other but *all things equal* I think boredom could win out.

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