The Hidden Cost of Boredom
"Wards for adults are often bare and patients themselves feel embarrassed about highlighting this fact"
Following a doctorate and research fellowship in cancer research at the University of Oxford, Dr Lizzie Burns has worked as a ‘science-based artist’ since 2002.
Awarded an OxTALENT prize in 2015, along with commissions from the British Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the Royal College of Pathologists, she recently launched the Oxford-based Anti-boredom Campaign (ABC) to tackle the detachment and morbid lethargy suffered by patients hospitalised over long periods. Here, she talks about its aims.
What first aroused your interest in the relationship between boredom and an individual’s ability to physically and mentally recover?
I became interested in boredom quite unexpectedly. I work once a week as a creative specialist at London’s University College Hospital, encouraging adults to get creative during their treatments for cancer. One gentleman, when I met him, made it clear to me that of all his clinical maladies, boredom was proving the toughest hurdle for him to overcome – that really opened my eyes to the scale of the problem.
Have you yourself ever endured a long term period of hospitalisation?
Funnily enough, I haven’t, and feel very aware of how lucky I’ve been. However, I’m fascinated that my grandfather spent eight years in hospital with tuberculosis. It’s impossible to imagine how he coped (although he did end up marrying his nurse, and thus my grandmother).
Surely it’s an accepted fact that boredom can dramatically slow down – if not entirely halt – the rate of an individual’s recovery?
The truth is, we don’t really know. However, there is some interesting circumstantial evidence from a 1984 paper by a young American architect who endured long depressing stays in ‘gloomy, sometimes brutal, healthcare buildings’ as a teenager. From his own experiences, Roger Ulrich wanted to explore whether something as simple as a window ‘view’ would affect health and recovery. He found a hospital in Pennsylvania where half the wards faced a wall, and the other, trees. Looking back at medical records, he was able to ascertain that those patients who had the room with the view of the trees recovered quicker, took fewer painkillers and suffered fewer complications than those patients in the ward overlooking a wall.
What then do you consider the single key element missing from the way in which patients are currently treated?
Boredom hasn’t truly been acknowledged, especially for adults. For children we provide colourful surroundings, toys and play specialists, and of course a child soon lets you know if they are bored. But wards for adults are often bare and patients themselves feel embarrassed about highlighting this fact (especially in today’s world, where boredom is a taboo for adults).
Are there any well-documented examples of just how detrimental boredom can be in hijacking a person’s ability to recover?
I would imagine there are many cases, but they have not been documented. From my own experience I can think clearly of one lady I worked with who, after more than a month in hospital, admitted to ‘zoning out’ for lack of anything to do. It turns out she loved making things, and after a session learning some origami with me, I left her some materials. The next week when I saw her, the change was extraordinary. She had gone from being passive to being, for want of a better expression, alive again. And full of hope.
Why do you think the medical profession as a whole continues to remain unimpressed by the argument that a patient engaged and excited by the process of their recovery will heal faster?
I’ve found doctors and nurses incredibly supportive but we have to be realistic – they themselves are working under incredible pressure to just mend us clinically. So we need to change the basic aesthetic of adult wards and furnish them with materials and suggestions for combating boredom. One male patient I knew set up his own hospital cinema club, using a DVD player, and staged special screenings once a week.
How do you aim to practically tackle this obvious (to anyone who has spent time in hospital) oversight?
I’ve started the Anti-boredom Campaign to encourage awareness of this hugely debilitating issue, and already it’s been featured in the British Medical Journal, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.
Is the solution more about investment or education?
Both. At the moment there is a clear lack of awareness so education is needed to highlight just how damaging boredom can be, but funding is vital too, and that is what I am currently engaged in pursuing.
With your particular clinical insight, how well do you think you would be able to survive a long-term period of hospitalisation?
It’s impossible to know but I have a sense that I’d struggle with being in a blank room without distractions.
If anyone reading this identifies with the issues raised, what can they do to help?
Take a look at the Anti-boredom Campaign website and do get in touch if you want to share any experiences you’ve had or reflections on boredom in hospital (and what helped you).
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