So, why is it that managers may find that some employees are feeling ‘meh’? Not down and depressed, not burnt out, just ‘meh’. Why it is that many feel somewhat aimless and joyless, despite being arguably over the emotional peak of the pandemic? Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, recently referred to this ‘sense of stagnation and emptiness’ as ‘languishing’. In his article for The New York Times, he wrote that ‘it feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021’.
This phenomenon is the latest to be identified in the wake of the pandemic. It, again, highlights the need for for managers to have their finger on the pulse and be on the look out for signs of mental health or mental ill health in employees. It is also important for global organisations particularly to realise that as employees will be potentially affected at different times, depending on the status of the pandemic in a location. So their workforce as a whole could be impacted over a long period of time.
What is languishing?
Languishing, a term coined by the sociologist Corey Keyes (2002), is used when describing mental health as a continuum. Keyes suggests that mental health ranges from a state of flourishing, with high levels of positive mental health and wellbeing, to languishing, a state of lower mental health and wellbeing. Whilst languishing is distinct from depression, those who are languishing are at higher risk of mental illness in the future (Keyes et al., 2010). Languishing can have both short and long term implications for organisations. In the short term it may have a negative impact on productivity, innovation and engagement; and in the long term could result in prolonged periods of absence as a result of mental ill-health in your workforce. It is therefore key for organisations and managers to both identify and support employees that may be feeling this way.
What does languishing look and feel like?
The very nature of languishing means that an individual is less likely to have noticed the feeling, or the effect it is having. Have a look at the list of symptoms below and see how many you recognise in yourself or those you work with:
More trouble than usual concentrating and making decisions. Individuals might find themselves struggling to find the right word, or realising they haven’t been paying attention in a zoom call. Quick email responses would not present difficulty, but writing a report or developing a strategy may be challenging.
Lack of enthusiasm about work. Instead of being a source of meaning and purpose, work might feel like ‘just a job’, a means to an end and just another means of survival necessary to overcome other pressures and challenges (Rosso et al. 2010).
Lack of vitality and motivation. This may show up in employees being apathetic, feeling weak and tired, stopping planning social activities like a holiday or seeing friends and losing focus on exercise and healthy eating. There will be a decline in ‘joyfulness’; laughter will be less common and things that used to bring joy don’t have the same effect.
A sense of overwhelm. Life might feel conflicted and rushed - too much, too busy. The challenge of managing work, maintaining productivity, creating plans, improving relationships and parenting effectively seems endless.
If any of these resonate with you, don't be hard on yourself. You share this feeling with many. If reading this, you recognise it in your team members, take a moment to read how you may support them.
Why are so many feeling like this?
Over the past year, the frameworks and structures that we pinned our lives on such as our work commute, school pick-ups, exercise classes and dinners with friends have been disrupted or stripped away. Our daily habits and physical contact with people we care about have been reduced, and we are left in a place of transition where what we once knew no longer exists and where our destination remains unclear. This is what psychologists call the liminal space. The pandemic has created an ongoing liminal space where we are existing in a type of interim world, with persistent uncertainties, restrictive measures and a loss of control over our lives.
It is well documented that being in transition can feel very unsettling and disconcerting – hence he experience of languishing. What evidence also shows though is that it can also present an opportunity for reflection, growth and transformation. People who embrace the liminal space, who experiment with new identities and ideas, and who use this ambiguous time to consider what they would and would not like to bring from their old worlds to the new, can emerge with a heightened sense of focus and purpose (Wilson, 2019).
Rather than languishing and waiting for the world to happen, this is an opportunity to thrive.
Shifting from languishing to thriving
Organisations looking for ways to support their employees through these testing times, can do a lot by acknowledging an issue and providing widespread information as well as bespoke support for individuals. When it comes to languishing, employers can share some of these evidence-based changes to help employees move themselves or others to a more positive space.
1. Embrace the liminal space
Recognise the freedom that comes with the future being uncertain. Write down what you have enjoyed and want to keep from the last year, and what you want to leave behind. What could this mean for your life and work in the future? Try out different options and be open to making mistakes.
2. Set and achieve small goals
Making plans and taking decisions can feel overwhelming at the moment. Instead, focus on achieving small goals such as going for a walk or making a plan to see a friend. Give yourself small challenges and enjoy the benefits of achieving them.
3. Focus on ‘you’ time
To be able to think clearly, you need to give your brain a chance to recharge. Take time every day where you are offline and where you don’t have interruptions. It might only be 5 minutes, but protect it and value this time for you.
4. Immerse yourself
Think of those activities that make you lose all track of time. It could be painting, baking, playing a computer game or dancing. Getting into this state of ‘flow’ will both re-energise you and help you to recover.
5. Share how you are feeling with others
Talk to friends and colleagues about how you are feeling and what you might be finding challenging. This will enable them to better support you both emotionally and transactionally.
6. Focus on the basics
Although prioritising exercise and eating healthily can feel like a real challenge, don’t feel that you need to go from zero to 100. Instead think of simple changes you can make every day, such as meeting a friend for a walk or cooking at home. Doing this will increase both your health and your feelings of control over your choices.
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