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mental health mondays :: bored to death?

actor george sanders, who committed suicide
in 1972, citing boredom as the reason
i know, i know... but yesterday was labour day, so today is kind of monday. right? [... crickets...]

well, this is the slightly belated but nevertheless proud return of mhm after an ever-so-slightly extended summer vacation and the first proper installment of more like space's official "boring week".

so what else could we discuss than boredom? i know that your first inclination will be to point out that boredom is not even close to being a mental illness, and you would be right, however that doesn't mean that it's benign. in fact, frédéric desnard, who was a manager at fragrance company interparfum before he was made redundant in 2015, made headlines earlier this year by filing a case against his former employer for "bore out". "bore out", in case you were wondering, is exactly what you think it is, being bored to the extent that you come burnt out in your position from the constant frustration of having nothing to do. desnard says that he was left in a state of depression by the constant lack of activity and stimulation, and that it even triggered an epileptic-type seizure [french link]. before he was laid off, desnard took a six month leave due to his depressed condition, but has since amended his claim, saying that the depression was caused simply by having to spend a full work day every day doing nothing and by feelings of guilt over the fact that he was drawing a decent salary for doing so. as part of his case, he is using the fact that his employers made his position redundant when they let him go in 2015.

it all sounds kind of funny, right? it's ok, let's giggle a bit.

but the fact is that boredom is pretty horrible. a two-part study of london civil servants conducted from 1985-88 and 2009 revealed that those who reported high levels of boredom on the job in the initial [80s] part of the survey were more than twice as likely to die as those who didn't. long-term boredom, call it "the boredom lifestyle" is associated with increased rates of alcoholism and high-risk behaviours, both seen as desperate attempts to ease the pain and to inject some sense of meaning to what otherwise seems like a futile life.

our perception of boredom is a little confused, to the point where even defining it is precarious: like schizophrenia, it has both positive and negative symptoms. listlessness, low energy, lack of engagement and lack of motivation are negative [involving a lack of feelings or behaviours considered normal or healthy]. on the positive side [the presence of feelings or behaviours that are not normal or healthy] there is agitation, irritability and physical restlessness [including insomnia]. both are marked by a loss of focus, which is at least irritating on the job but not usually life-threatening. but consider what that means if you're an air traffic controller or a pilot.

in fact, it seems that attention and engagement have a lot to do with how boredom happens in the first place. although we're often told that boredom is a sign that a person lacks imagination, or possibly intelligence, a frequently cited paper on the subject says that it's actually the opposite; it's our inquisitive nature that "goes rogue" when we can't find stimulation or things that engage us . if that sounds familiar, it's because it's an argument that's been used for a long time to explain how bright, gifted children end up performing poorly in school. but for some reason, we think that adults are magically able to avoid those problems simply by virtue of the fact that they're adults.

and that's completely missing the point: boredom is toxic not because we don't recognise the source of our boredom [as we assume children don't], but because we can't escape it. children are forced to remain in school by law. adults are forced to stay at stifling jobs because they need the money those jobs generate. but an employee who feels bored to death on the job can't just relieve that boredom by rushing off to go rock climbing. as with school, there are rules that must be observed.

now, there's the theory- and evidence to support it- that some people are positively affected by boredom, that it pushes them to think  more creatively or try new things rather than simply fading into a fog of depression and ennui. but it turns out that two types of people are susceptible to "dangerous" boredom [the kind that literally kills]: adventurous types who are constantly seeking new ways in which to engage their senses and severely withdrawn people [such as trauma victims] whose fear of change prevents them from finding ways of engaging their mind. [in the latter case, boredom becomes the accepted price for a sense of safety and stability.] so how damaging boredom is can be determined by things that are beyond your control.

so does that mean that frédéric desnard's employers, that all of our employers, are responsible for creating an environment that's stimulating for employees? i don't know, but to me that seems a little harsh. sure, it's preferable that work be stimulating and it will result in a happier workforce. but a corporation exists primarily to generate profits for owners and investors. they are not little sociological crucibles for working out the formula to contemporary human happiness and the vast majority of them wouldn't be able to do so, having no familiarity with the subject.

david graeber, a sociology professor at the london school of economics, has posited that entire categories of jobs are actually unnecessary, and exist simply to reinforce a certain economic system. and from that argument, it's a short trip to wondering why we deem it necessary that everyone be employed at all. but that's a much larger discussion.

i have not heard back about whether or not mr. desnard's case was successful. as far as i can tell, it is still being evaluated. if he does win, it sets an interesting precedent that would push the problem of workplace boredom to the fore as both a cause [for those who, rightly, feel that their dull work is damaging to their health] and as a threat [for employers who, rightly, feel that their responsibility to ensure that work is engaging and exciting, is tantamount to a requirement that they keep a bare minimum of staff, all of whom will have so much to do that they don't have time to be bored].

have your eyes glazed over yet? well, since i'm not compelling you to read this, you can't take me to court if they are. but if if this post has left you feeling listless, unstimulated and unengaged, i suggest that you go for a walk, or try painting, or learn about urban gardening in order to restart your sense of attentiveness. your life may depend on it. 

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