New research suggests that being under-stimulated or bored can cause just as much anxiety as being too busy. Emirates Woman discovers why ‘underload’ is as stressful as overload.

According to new research in the US, having too little to do – or ‘underload’, as some experts call it – can cause many of the same physical discomforts we associate with being overloaded, like muscle tension, stomach aches and headaches. A study published earlier this year in the journal Experimental Brain Research monitored people’s heart rates, hormonal levels and other factors while watching a boring film – men hanging laundry – and found they showed greater signs of stress than those watching a sad movie. “Stress and anxiety can certainly result as much from under-stimulation as from over-stimulation,” explains Esther Watt, Personal Development Consultant for LifeWorks Dubai. “Boredom can be stressful, and feeling bored indicates that we are caught in an unnatural rhythm and it often results in feelings of disconnection.”

Of course, the devastating impact of work-related stress can’t be underplayed. A recent study of 32,000 UAE employees by Towers Watson’s Global Workforce Study (GWS) found that 42 per cent of the UAE workforce feels excessive pressure at work, while 56 per cent are insecure about finances and the future. In fact, stress has become so much a part of modern living that it’s almost become a status symbol or a badge of honour. “The term ‘stressed’ has become a buzzword, one that often carries multiple meanings, for example, ‘I’m in the high-achiever set’,” says Esther. “Being busy is often thought to equate with being stressed, but it’s really how we handle being busy that makes the difference.”

However, frustrations caused by not being busy enough can also cause problems. “We all need to feel that our contributions are of value, so if we are idle for longer than is comfortable, we often end up feeling undervalued and dispensable, which has significant repercussions on our emotional wellbeing’,” Esther adds. And, just like overload costs in stress leave, it’s worth noting that boredom and underload can also cost. In a 2011 paper, Professor Paul Spector and his co-authors from the University of South Florida found that the stress of boredom at work can lead to counterproductive behaviour like more sick days, longer breaks, shopping online, gossiping with co-workers, playing practical jokes or even stealing. While most workers engage in some of these activities at times, the bored employee does it far more frequently, noted Professor Spector. Finding the perfect compromise between motivational pressure and excessive stress is not easy. “Some research suggests that a little stress can strengthen our focus, memory and reactions,” says Esther. “The line between a motivating amount of stress and a debilitating amount of stress is in our awareness of the effects the stress is having on us.”

It’s a delicate balance, she warns, and if you tip it over or under, you might experience tension. A lot of stress-related problems come down to your individual personality type: what might be a motivating amount of work for one person can be too much for another. According to Esther, much of the techniques used to combat stress caused by overload can be applied to stress caused by overload. “We often panic when life fails to cooperate with our plans. The very fact that we are stressed is an indication that we think things should be different. Very few of us realise that we can choose how we respond to life’s challenges. If we accept what is happening, even when it is not what we had planned for, there is always an opportunity to make positive changes that support what we actually need. “

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Esther’s Top De-stressing Activities:

 Yoga or Tai Chi 

“Doing some form of exercise that actually builds the core energy, like yoga or Tai Chi, really helps us cope better with stress and its affects.” Visit and

Laughter Therapy

“Laughter is one of the best antidotes to stress. Among its many benefits are that it shifts the attention away from our problems, broadens the stress-narrowed focus, relieves muscle tension, releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones, and boosts the immune system.” Visit

Swimming or Walking Outdoors

“It’s great to spend time in natural environments like the beach or the desert, or to wander through date palm oases, or swim in a wadi.” Visit and

Writing or Painting

“Creative pursuits – just for pleasure rather than as competitive ventures – are a great antidote to stress; doing some painting, or writing a story or a poem can be very satisfying, building a broader sense of identity and accomplishment, thus making us more resilient.” Visit



Words: Aoife Stuart Madge