What To Say To Your “Languishing” Employees Post-Covid
You’ve noticed your best employees haven’t been on top of their game lately but you’re not sure what’s going on. They’ve been meeting deadlines but their work isn’t the same. When you check in during your weekly one-on-ones they seem fine. You’ve asked several times if there is anything you can do but they just tell you, “I’m fine. As best as I can be at this time.”
You don’t say anything because, quite frankly, you don’t feel great yourself. You can’t put the feelings into words but each time you sit down in front of your computer you can’t concentrate and find yourself actively trying to find excuses not to get started. You have tons of projects to do but for some reason, the feeling of excitement and urgency just isn’t there anymore. “Is it just me?” you ask yourself.
Then you read the New York Times article by Adam Grant called, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing” and suddenly the puzzle pieces started to click into place. This is what’s going on with your employees. This is why your team meetings are so lackluster and why you can’t figure out how to “fix” this problem. Grant describes languishing as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.”
When you’re languishing you’re neither mentally ill nor mentally healthy, you’re essentially existing in this in between state. It’s a fancy way of saying you feel “meh.” You may be wondering, “Why now?” Shouldn’t you be feeling more hopeful? There’s a vaccine, your kids may be back in school and your company is talking about a return-to-work plan.
While you may not be feeling the same level of anxiety you first felt when the shutdown happened early last year, you’ve been living with a heightened state of anxiety on a daily basis for over a year. Experiencing stress and anxiety on a temporary basis is a normal part of life. Like preparing for a big job interview, you feel some jitters the day before and those feelings increase until the interview is over and your body starts to relax as you walk out of the building.
This past year has been anything but normal and definitely not temporary. Essentially every single day since the shutdown has been one long drawn-out anxiety filled job interview and you just want to stop smiling, quit answering the same questions over and over again and just go home.
Research has shown that the long-term effect of chronic stress and anxiety can damage your brain and increase the risk of neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression and dementia. Grant’s NYT article refers to a study in Italy, which indicated pandemic care workers who reported languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
This puts employers, managers and leaders in a unique position. While your organization needs to keep generating revenue, you can’t ignore what’s happening right now. Indeed recently published their 2021 Employee Burnout Report and it indicates that 67% of the workers surveyed feel employee burnout has gotten worse since last year. Despite the vaccine and discussion of returning to work, the overall mental health of most employees is well…languishing.
Since languishing is neither mental health nor mental illness, there’s a real opportunity to help push your employees towards mental health and away from mental illness.
Here are three things your organization can do now:
1. Humanize The Feelings
So often when you’re struggling you don’t need the other person to solve your problems, what you need is for them to listen and validate your feelings. One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic was the isolation, not just the physical isolation but the mental and emotional isolation people experienced. Mental and emotional isolation is not having anyone to check in with after a tough meeting and not having anyone to tell you you’re doing a great job and keep going.
Part of the why so many people are languishing is they’re not getting enough positive human interaction and validation. Leaders can also start sharing with their employees how they’re feeling and how they’re coping with all of these changes and their own concerns about the transition back to work to let their employees know they aren’t alone.
2. Promote The Importance Of Time-Off
As 2020 rolled along more and more Americans decided to cancel and postpone their vacation plans. In fact, 72% of Americans skipped summer vacation in 2020 but many people didn’t replace the much needed yearly vacation with any kind of break. Indeed’s Employee Burnout Report found 53% of employees are working longer hours and 61% report they are finding it harder to unplug after work.
The combination of no vacation and increased work has contributed to the overall feeling of exhaustion and hopelessness connected to languishing. Instead of taking a “staycation” most employees just kept working last year and now it’s really hitting them. In fact, 36% of employees say more PTO could help reduce burnout.
Start checking in with your employees to ensure they’ve taken time off from work. Managers can collaborate with their HR departments to get a quarterly report of who hasn’t taken a vacation so they can check in with these employees privately. Even if you can’t travel anywhere, having time away from the daily pressures of work is vital for everyone’s mental and emotional well-being. Promote the importance of time away from work and even start having monthly mental health days off. Leaders can talk about how they spent their weekends to model to employees that weekends are for relaxation and fun, not for checking emails.
3. Limit The Distractions
According to Grant the antidote to languishing is a concept called “flow.” Being in “flow” is when you’re so engrossed in a meaningful activity that you lose track of sense and all sense of self disappears. Have you ever started gardening, painting, hiking or playing music and then you look up and 3 hours have gone by and you had no idea? That being in a flow state or “zone.”
The problem today is it’s really hard to get in “flow” because there are so many ways to get distracted. Once upon a time you just needed to shut off your phone but these days it will take you 15 minutes to shut off all of your notifications on your phone and computer and even then, there is always some app you missed along the way.
Help your employees create blocks of time to get into “flow” by encouraging them to block off the first hour of each morning to work on something important to them without any distractions. Across the organization urge people not to schedule meetings during this time and to shut down all distractions.
The most important thing to remember is these behaviors are habits that need to be changed. Research has shown it takes on average 66 days for a behavior to become a new habit, which means this is a process. Developing new habits takes time, practice, repetition and self-compassion. While it may be frustrating at times, remember the goal is to create behaviors that will help you and your employees stop languishing and start thriving.