Are Companies Legally Liable For Not Providing Meaningful Work?

boreout, boredom

We know that meaningful work is good for both employees and employers. While meaningful work is worthwhile in of itself, scholars consider meaningfulness to be a fundamental psychological need and a component of human well-being that strengthens people's self-worth and life experience. Meaningful work addresses the question, "Is there more to work than earning a paycheck?" Work is not just a source of income. It also provides a sense of identity and self-esteem.

People who experience meaningful work report greater mental health, meaning in life, life and job satisfaction, and connection to something bigger than themselves. Employees want to know that they are useful and valued; they are a part of an organization, and they are making a difference. BetterUp Research showed that personal growth is ranked as the biggest source of workplace meaning.

Organizations might assume that fairly compensating their employees is enough to provide employees with a meaningful work environment. However, conceptualizing work in purely economic terms leads employees to adopt a transactional attitude and do the bare minimum the job requires. That is why companies should look beyond financial compensation. When employees find their work meaningful, organizations benefit from higher levels of engagement, reduced absenteeism, and better performance.

What happens if companies do not want to look beyond compensation and create a work environment for their employees that has meaning and purpose? In that case, employees might feel bored, disconnected, or worse – they might suffer emotionally, mentally, and physically. On the company's part, the organization might be found legally liable for inflicting boredom on its employees, and that could constitute moral harassment. That is what happened in Paris when the French court awarded an employee 40,000 euros for suffering extreme boredom at his job.

In 2016, an employee of a luxury perfume manufacturer, Interparfums, which produces perfumes for Jimmy Choo and Karl Lagerfeld among other designer brands, sued his former employer for extreme boredom. The employee claimed that the company turned him into a "professional zombie." According to the legal case, his "bore-out" triggered an epileptic attack while he was driving, resulting in a car accident that placed him in a coma for several days. That experience caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown, after which he had to take seven months off from work. Eventually, he was dismissed for the prolonged absence.

Boreout syndrome is a relatively new term, which was initially discussed in a book, Boreout!: Overcoming Workplace Demotivation, by two Swiss management consultants Philippe Rothlin and Peter Werder. Boreout is a psychological disorder that is caused by work boredom and lack of meaningful and challenging tasks. French clinical psychologist, Elsa Andron, explained that employees experience boreout when they lack purpose in their work, lack intellectual stimulation, and lack a prospect for progression. Boreout can lead to depression, sleep disorders, lack of drive, and the inability to enjoy life, according to psychotherapist Wolfgang Merkle from Frankfurt.

On June 2, 2020, the Paris Court of Appeal delivered a ruling stating that boreout was a form of moral harassment. The judge found that lack of activity and boredom led to the deterioration of Interparfums employee's health. As stated before, the court awarded the employee 40,000 euros for his suffering.

While this court case can serve as a wake-up call or even a warning, organizations should help their employees find meaningful work not out of the fear of getting sued, but because it is the right thing to do. Companies can foster a sense of meaningfulness for their employees by doing the following:

  1. Formulate the organization's purpose in a way that focuses on the company's positive contribution to the broader society or the environment
  2. Demonstrate to the employees how their jobs fit with the organization's broader purpose
  3. Encourage people to understand that while certain parts of their jobs are tedious and repetitive, those tasks contribute to the organization's purpose
  4. Create a supportive, respectful, and inclusive work environment where employees can communicate a sense of shared values and belonging and realize how their work has a positive impact on others.

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