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Bore out: Workplace boredom and employer liability

Bord at work2Some jobs are boring. I spent eight months during University working as a parking booth attendant. There was not much to do in the 3’ by 3’ box, but it helped pay for tuition.

Despite workplace boredom being a mundane reality of some working lives, it may also be the catalyst for more serious workplace concerns. At the extreme, in limited circumstances, boredom could even form the basis for constructive dismissal.

Perfume companies and Japanese banishment rooms

Last year, a French employee sued his former employer, Interparfums, for the equivalent of $481,000.00. The employee, Frédéric Desnard, accused Interparfums of subjecting him to “bore out”. For those not familiar with this term, it is basically “boredom’s equivalent of burnout.” Given the pervasive nature of workplace boredom in many working lives, Mr. Desnard’s claim may seem ludicrous. The reality, however, was more complex.

Over a four-year period, Mr. Desnard, a senior managerial employee, stated that he was slowly stripped of his authority and left to perform menial and mind-numbing tasks. The process was both humiliating and embarrassing to Mr. Desnard, as he lingered on at work—sidelined and ignored. Mr. Desnard further alleged that the experience caused him to suffer serious illness, including “epilepsy, ulcers, sleep problems and serious depression.”

Ultimately, Mr. Desnard left the workplace on sick leave, on which he remained for 7 months before being dismissed in September 2014 for his prolonged absence.

Mr. Desnard’s experience is unfortunately not unique. In Japan, the use of ‘banishment rooms’ has also been common practice. The Japanese Daily Press has reported that a banishment room is a department where:

“Companies transfer surplus employees and give them menial or useless tasks or even nothing to do until they become depressed or disheartened enough to quit on their own, thus not getting full benefits, unlike if they were actually let go.”

It has been further reported that many prominent Japanese companies, including Hitachi, Sony, and Toshiba have made effective use of banishment rooms to avoid having to lay off staff, and pay associated severance.

The impact of boredom in Ontario workplaces

In Ontario, intentionally subjecting employees to “bore out”, may provide the basis for a claim in constructive dismissal, create a breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”), and even attract punitive damages:

  • Constructive dismissal refers to an employer making a unilateral and fundamental change to an individual’s job, to which the individual does not consent. In the right circumstances, it allows the affected individual to treat their employment as terminated and seek compensation for breach of contract;
  • The OHSA requires Ontario employers to provide a workplace free from harassment, and to further ensure a safe and healthy work environment for their staff; and
  • Punitive damages are awarded by the Courts to punish employers that engage in unacceptable treatment of their workers in the course of the employment relationship.

Moving beyond the more extreme scenarios, workplace boredom remains a significant issue for Ontario employers and employees alike. Dr. Sandi Mann, a University Professor and expert on boredom, has observed that workplace boredom may be a serious source of stress for individuals. In addition, Mann has noted that “when people get bored, they become disengaged.”

In a recent BBC article, several employees described their struggles with the effects of workplace boredom. One such employee noted that “It was also affecting relationships. I was self-sabotaging everything. And I was drinking too much. Eventually I went to see a counsellor.”

Boredom at work may act as a catalyst to more serious workplace issues, including loss of productivity, employee absenteeism, and employee illness. All of which not only have the potential to increase administrative burden and operational cost for employers, but result in an unhappy, unmotivated and unhealthy workforce.

Lessons for Ontario employers

Workplace boredom is likely here to stay. Given its relationship to lost productivity, illness and absenteeism, however, it is something that employers should seek to mitigate where possible.

There is academic debate over how this goal may best be achieved. The authors of one recent article suggest that workplace boredom may be alleviated, in part, through careful selection of personnel and improvements to internal process and task design. Accordingly, employers with concerns about productivity and/or elevated levels of absenteeism may consider reviewing the manner in which work is being performed by their employees.

Mann has posited that one option may be to put scorekeeping in place, track productivity and incorporate regular team-building exercises to encourage team bonding and provide a break from the monotony of routine.

Finally, Mr. Desnard’s case should serve as a warning to the potential risks of fundamentally altering an employee’s job. If such action proves necessary within your organization, seek and obtain express written consent from the employee to all proposed changes before proceeding to implementation.

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Vey Willetts LLP

Employment and labour lawyers at Vey Willetts
Vey Willetts LLP is an Ottawa-based workplace law firm, serving individuals and employers across Eastern Ontario. They recognize that operating a business is complex and maintaining an efficient and legally-compliant workplace is a continuous challenge. The firm helps simplify legal workplace obligations so that employers can focus on what matters: their business. Learn more about Vey Willetts LLP by contacting Andrew Vey, or Paul Willetts or by visiting the firm’s website. Read more.
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