First published on Inside Retail as ‘Languishing in the time of COVID’
By Dr Sarah Cotton
For most, there has been a lot of life changes in a short space of time and feeling a sense of restlessness, unease or an overall lack of interest in life or the things that typically bring you joy is just one part of this. We now have a name for this particular emotion; languishing.
Languishing dulls our motivation, disrupts our ability to focus, and stops us from functioning at full capacity. If left unaddressed, it can lead to more serious mental health conditions. For example, research shows healthcare workers in Italy, who were languishing, were three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the wake of Covid-19. Research by Corey L. M. Keyes found that the risk of major depression in languishing adults is six times more likely than flourishing adults.
As Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times, wouldn’t it be refreshing if we didn’t automatically respond with “great” or “fine” when we’re asked “How are you?”. Imagine if we gave honest answers and opened up a dialogue for others to do the same. One of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them. We need to recognise, label, give voice to our emotions before we can regulate and manage them. It helps us find clarity in a disorienting time, validates our experiences, and can help de-stigmatise mental health in the workplace.
Just like we exercise to improve our physical wellness, we need to focus on our mental fitness to protect ourselves from languishing. We can do this by getting the basics right—eating, sleeping, exercising. Along with practicing meditation and mindfulness, doing things that make us feel positive and fulfilled, and celebrating the small wins – this is essential for a sense of progress at home and work.
Develop a culture of checking-in (not checking-up) regularly to assess how your people may be feeling at this time is critical. Take the time to deeply understand the circumstances of each of your employees, listen to their concerns and address as many as you can directly, honestly and with compassion. While we have all been in the same storm it is important to remember we have all been in different boats.
Managers directly impact employees day-to-day work experience through the workload assigned to individuals, the expectations they set, and the support and resources provided. They also have the opportunity to set the tone for good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. We know that to lead well, we have to be well. Leaders who model positive behaviours like staying active, talking openly about their own mental health, and promote an environment of psychological safety can create a positive trickle-down effect in the workplace.
New research shows that a state of flow (that is being so completely absorbed in an activity we enjoy we lose track of time) may be a helpful tool to dealing with the negative impacts of COVID-19. The study of more than 5,000 people who were quarantined in China during the early months of the pandemic found that those who experienced flow felt less lonely and more positive during lockdown. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the concept of mental “flow” to refer to stretches of time when we’re entirely focused on an activity for its own sake. Flow isn’t only reserved for hobbies, it’s also achievable at work or anytime we feel like we’re “in the zone”.
With stay-at-home orders in place, we’re finding it harder to achieve our flow. Constant interruptions and distractions from sharing our workspaces at home with partners and kids means we’re not able to tick off as much on our to-do lists. Creating space for flow can be challenging, but when we focus on our well-being we can help others more effectively. Some tips for prioritising flow include; blocking out time in your calendar around ‘flow time’ and encouraging others to do the same, making the boundaries visible (closed door/open door), and to do your activity mindfully – switch off external distractions as much as possible.
This may sound counterintuitive, but regular breaks help with monotony, fatigue and it also improves our focus when we are back ‘on’. Working within award frameworks, it may be beneficial to offer frequent smaller breaks given employees are dealing with extreme external stressors at this time. Outside of regular breaks, many people aren’t taking longer periods of annual leave, which is leading to increased levels of burnout and fatigue.
At this time you may not have all the answers, but being informed is crucial. Organisations have a number of legal responsibilities when it comes to creating a mentally healthy workplace. Learn about the factors that could contribute to unhealthy work practices and how to address them in your organisation. Leaders who recognise the signs of distress, anxiety and depression or family and domestic violence are more equipped to respond quickly with support. It’s also important to understand the resources available and actively encourage others to make use of them, including confidential EAP programs, access to psychological help, HR support, and other wellbeing programs.
The statistics are unclear on how many of us may be experiencing languishing at present, though Adam Grant’s article identified Languishing as the dominant emotion of 2021. Given we spend a large portion of our lives at work, leaders have the opportunity to help languishing employees by establishing a supportive and mentally healthy workplace. Wouldn’t it be great to look back in ten years and know the support systems we put in place now not only protected our own mental health but allowed the people around us to flourish too?
As leaders in work-life wellbeing support, we’ve added a new Languishing workshop to our COVID-19 Wellness series. Our workshop delves into practical strategies to help your people reduce languishing and increase flourishing. This workshop can be delivered as a ‘one-off’ or packaged up to best fit your organisations’ needs and budget. To find out more contact us on 1300 824 808 or firstname.lastname@example.org