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Would You Pick A Boring Job?

June 12, 2014

Ponder this question - if you had to sit in a chair for 5 minutes, would you rather sit there quietly with nothing to do (no television, smartphone, music, or reading or writing materials) or solve some puzzles to pass the time? If you were paid for your time, do you think you should get paid more for solving puzzles than just sitting there?

Well, some Duke researchers conducted a study looking at this very question. Participants in this study felt that they should be paid more for doing the puzzles – because they were expending more effort. But, they were less bored (dare I say, happier) than the participants who just sat there and didn’t do anything. Hmmm…


When I read the story about this study, it made me think about real jobs. There are a lot of jobs where people are paid to do very little. For example, the study mentioned a security guard at a museum. I also think about construction workers holding stop signs and those people who wear placards on the side of the road to advertise store sales. Standing all day with no meaningful interactions and no intellectual stimulation – it’s not my kind of job. But, does everyone hate it? Does everyone think it’s boring?

As an I/O psychologist, I contemplate these issues and try to figure out what would lead a person to choose a job that, to many, would be considered boring. The results from the aforementioned study provide some insight into workers’ choices. The study concludes that most people simplify their decisions about work down to one or two factors with amount of effort being one of the key concerns. According to their results, most people will choose the task that has the least amount of effort associated with it. If this is true for real applicants, it means that, if given the choice between two jobs, the worker will pick the one that requires the least amount of effort.

Because the human mind wants to simplify decisions and this effort avoidance factor is a driver in decision making, it makes me wonder what kind of effect this might have on employee satisfaction and organizational turnover. I think another way of looking at the study results is to say that candidates aren’t naturally wired to look at a job from all angles and really match their interests and expectations to what is being offered in the job. When candidates fail to do this, there is a greater chance of the employee making a poor employment decision and becoming dissatisfied – which can lead to turnover. A dreaded word in HR departments– turnover. Turnover is expensive for organizations and frustrating for employers and employees.

I would also argue that “boring” is in the eye of the beholder. While many people would agree that jobs where you have very little to do to pass the time are boring, there are many other jobs that people would also find boring. I have an office job where I am at a desk, sitting at a computer - typing, answering e-mails and talking on the phone a majority of the day. For many, this kind of work is boring and unattractive. It’s very possible that one of those security guards would hate my job as much as I would hate his/hers. To me, it’s all about job fit. When people choose jobs that require them to be in certain environments or perform tasks they find undesirable, there is a poor job fit. If the discrepancy between what you want and what you are doing is large enough, it leads to dissatisfaction and potentially turnover.

My company works with a lot of manufacturing plants that have assembly line positions. Because of the repetitive motions and monotonous tasks, many workers find these types of jobs to be less stimulating than others. One of our largest automobile clients has learned this lesson first hand, which led them to add a full day production simulation to their selection process. All potential hires are given a chance to perform comparable assembly line work during the simulation (e.g., mounting bolts, moving heavy parts, stooping, pulling, twisting). I have personally observed quite a few individuals withdrawing from the selection process after the first half of the day. When asked why, about half of those candidates cited the reason as “boring” (the other half cited the physical difficulty of the tasks).  But, there were plenty of candidates who stayed the entire time, performed well and really enjoyed it. Let me emphasize, that these are good and stable jobs with a global organization that provides competitive pay and benefits. Because of how well this organization treats its employees, many people thought they could get past the job tasks –but when faced with just a sample of what the work was like, they realized it wasn’t for them.

What does all of this mean? It means that not all jobs are for everybody. If you’re interested in finding a job that you won’t mind spending most of your waking hours doing, it is important to look at the match between the person and the job.

  • If you are a candidate and are actively looking for a job, you should do some introspection. Ask yourself what you like and dislike. What would cause you dissatisfaction in the workplace? Ask about the satisfiers and dissatisfiers during the interview process. If you have a chance, ask current employees what they like the most about their jobs and what they like the least. When employees turn over, is it something about the job that causes them to do so? How would you feel about those issues?
  • If you are an organization in the process of recruiting and hiring, be open with your candidates about the good and the bad. We call this a realistic job preview (RJP). By failing to be honest about potentially dissatisfying factors, you may end up with a turnover issue. Work samples and simulations can help candidates better understand your jobs. These types of assessments might be especially helpful for positions that have some undesirable qualities. Find out before you hire the person.

I know what I want in a job and it’s not standing in one place guarding artwork in a museum, but I’m certainly glad that there are people who don’t mind doing it. The next time I see a security guard or a placard carrying advertiser, I’m going to wonder if they like what they’re doing or if they oversimplified the decision making process. Either way, I’ll definitely be glad that I’m not doing it!

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Amie Lawrence, Ph.D. Amie Lawrence, Ph.D. is the Manager of Product Development at PSI. She is an expert in the design, development and validation of psychological assessment tools. An integral member of PSI since 2000, Amie has led the development of numerous competency-based assessments, including online in-baskets, job simulations and motivational fit instruments.