If we rewind to the start of this year, you may recall there was a sense of excitement about; anticipation that 2021 surely had to be better than the previous 12 months. The COVID-19 vaccines were being rolled out and with that came the prospect that postponed celebrations and overseas holidays were within our reach. But here we find ourselves almost halfway through the new year and most of that earlier enthusiasm has gone…

It’s no surprise that this is the case. Firstly, we’re all still fearful and on high alert of sporadic positive COVID cases, which could mean that at any moment we’re back in lockdown (the case for Melburnians at present). Secondly, we’re reluctant to make any social commitments or to book trips, those things that used to bring us happiness and boosts to our wellbeing, given the risk that they could be cancelled. And finally, we haven’t yet recovered from the events of last year, we’re worn down and the anxiousness that persists is adding further to our already heightened levels of stress.

Given so much uncertainty still prevails and we have less control over our present and future lives, the majority of us right now are feeling demotivated, fatigued, distracted and restless – far from thriving! 

When Wharton Psychology Professor Adam Grant wrote an article in the New York Times earlier this month on languishing, what he described resonated. It seems that one of the outcomes of the past 12 months is that languishing has become a much more common state for many.

What is languishing?

The term languishing was first coined by Corey Keyes (2002), who argued that mental health is not just the presence of high wellbeing or the absence of mental illness. Keyes suggested that mental health can be looked at on a dual continuum of good and poor mental health, and the presence or absence of mental illness.

Keyes deemed languishing the opposite of flourishing. Although you may or may not have symptoms of mental illness, languishing means your wellbeing isn’t high so you’re not at your best. Languishing has been likened to feeling “blah”, bored, stagnant, empty, fed-up or joyless. In his article, Grant suggests that languishing “feel(s) as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” 

Back in 2002, a study by Keyes found that about 12% of adults were considered languishing. Prior to the pandemic, BetterUp’s research suggested that over 55% of people were experiencing languishing. Fast forward to today, we can only assume that this percentage has increased given the additional stress we’re under, which impacts our ability to function well.

Although you might not necessarily be languishing, there’s a high chance you know people who are.

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How does languishing show up in the workplace?

When we’re not at our best, it’s difficult for our work to be at its best too.

Those languishing in the workplace are typically:

  • Easily distracted and irritated
  • Having trouble with memory
  • Lacking drive and energy
  • Showing little excitement about future tasks or projects
  • Disconnected to colleagues
  • Displaying increased cynicism towards work, manager or colleagues.

Although those who are languishing are still showing up and going through the motions of their job, their performance has typically dipped, which comes at a cost to the organisation as outlined in Figure 1 below. 

Because on the outside you look fine, languishing can go undetected. This is why it’s important for people managers to be identifying how their team members are through surveys or asking questions (those that go deeper than “how are you?”).

Figure 1: Pathways to Thriving – author’s own

What’s the risk?

The worry is that without focus and attention, people who are currently languishing will fall further below the line as captured in Figure 1. They’re more at risk of moving towards struggling or burnout, or even developing symptoms of mental illness in the future.

In a study undertaken by Keyes in 2009, it was found that those most likely to experience depression or anxiety over the following ten years, weren’t the ones with symptoms at the time but rather those deemed as languishing. More recently, research on health care workers in Italy has shown that those that were languishing last year, were three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

So action needs to be taken to prevent those from languishing moving into the struggling or burnout zone. Including seeking professional help when required.

How can you move towards thriving?

The first step to improve your situation is to work out where you or your team are at (Figure 1 may help here) and to name the state or feelings being experienced. The second is to take action.

To prevent:
These days greater resilience and more coping skills are needed to deal with the challenges that will (always) continue to present themselves so things don’t get worse.

To promote:
Yet there’s also an opportunity to move above the line and towards thriving. Thriving is the opposite of burnout; it’s you performing at your best, being fully engaged and having high wellbeing.

Workplaces should be supporting their employees to thrive by creating cultures that are characterised by learning, trusting and respectful relationships, and psychological safety. Organisations need to focus on teaching their leaders the skills required to bring the best out of their teams in this new environment. Employees should be motivated to achieve their goals, encouraged to play to their strengths and to undertake tasks that boost their energy, engagement and bring on flow.

Thriving isn’t a destination but an ongoing journey. The state of employees will ebb and flow throughout an organisation’s life as there will be different obstacles to overcome. But the aim should be to continually prioritise the elements that promote thriving.