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Dr Melanie James

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Employee wellbeing: why ‘languishing’ must not be dismissed as the latest buzzword

Mental health disorders are on the rise and languishing has a clear link to many of them. What should employers do?

The word ‘languishing’ is being bandied around in the media as the world tries to recover from the pandemic and is experiencing many struggles resuming a semblance of ‘normal life’. Recent articles in The New York Times and The Guardian have detailed languishing as an inability to focus, being off peak performance, feeling joyless and aimless and having a sense of stagnation and emptiness.

It is important that this is taken seriously, not only for the morale and wellbeing of your staff, but for the health of your business. 

Although it has been helpful to put a name to the feelings (or lack of feelings) that people have been experiencing, there is also the risk that due to this descriptor, they are not being taken seriously, and that people may not recognise them for what they actually might be – symptoms of an emerging mental health disorder.

Links to mental health disorders

When researching the term ‘languishing’ and reading about its symptoms, you will find clear links to more recognised mental health symptoms.

The first example is ‘avolition’ which is a symptom of mental health disorders such as depression, PTSD, premenstrual dysphoric disorder and schizophrenia.

Avolition is the behavioural symptom of having a significant or severe lack of motivation, or a pronounced inability to complete purposeful tasks. This isn’t about willingness or laziness and can affect multiple areas of your life. People who don’t get enough stimulation can also experience avolition – so periods of isolation can also cause this, which makes sense in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A second term associated with languishing is anhedonia. This is an inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities and is a recognised symptom of depression. People with anhedonia may have a complete disinterest in social activities, or no longer derive pleasure from food, sex or physical touch.

The point of highlighting these similarities is not to push people into diagnosing themselves with any of the above disorders, but to add a more serious clinical perspective on these signs and symptoms and to help individuals recognise that when experiencing them in an increasing or persistent way, it is important to talk openly and to ask for help.

Addressing languishing in the workplace

If you are an employer and recognise some of the above signs in your staff, or they are complaining of ‘languishing’, it is important that this is taken seriously, not only for the morale and wellbeing of your staff, but for the health of your business.

The following is a list of things to both create an environment where conversations about mental health are possible and to ensure that people’s needs are responded to:

  • Prioritise regular catch-ups and one to ones with your team – make sure you use this time to talk through any difficulties at work or at home.
  • Demonstrate patience and flexibility in allowing employees to get ‘back up to speed’ as many may still be suffering loss and trauma.
  • If you are working remotely, try to arrange times where people can chat more casually about non-work topics and have opportunities to connect.
  • Be a role model in terms of openness – share your own experiences of mental health difficulties.
  • Don’t make assumptions – don’t try and guess what people’s symptoms may mean or how they may affect them.
  • Encourage them to seek help and support – if your firm offers corporate wellbeing support, encourage them to make use of the resources available to them, to speak to their GP about psychological therapy, or use an online resource such as the Mind Infoline which can signpost people to support.

When we were entering the pandemic we were encouraged not to be hard on ourselves if we struggled to adjust, to take things gradually, and to look after ourselves – the same applies now.

Setting small achievable goals and having realistic expectations of ourselves, each other and as a team will build trust, confidence and growth.

Interested in this topic? Read How HR can mitigate the mental health impact of office re-integration.

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