Languishing: The new idiom in wellbeing

Dr Nick Earley explores the term being used to describe the feeling of low morale for many in 2021, and looks at how this impacts businesses.

There has been lots of conversation around burnout and depression during the pandemic but recently many people have been reporting a feeling which is quite different. Not quite burnout or depression, but something along the lines of ‘meh’.

This feeling is difficult to put your finger on. It is a mixture of feeling aimless and joyless and is now being recognised as ‘languishing’. Since early spring the term has become widely used in the mainstream media with the New York Times recently calling it the dominant feeling of 2021.

The best explanation what languishing means comes from sociologist Corey Keyes who describes the feeling as the antithesis of flourishing. It can also be defined as ‘the absence of wellbeing’ and is often associated with feeling demotivated or stagnant, resulting in a lack of drive.

How can languishing impact your business?

The potential that employees may be experiencing languish should be cause for concern in the current climate. Every business wants to come back from the pandemic more resilient than it was when it entered it, but languishing could threaten that.

Defined as ‘the absence of wellbeing’ and is often associated with feeling demotivated or stagnant

If employees are not functioning at full capacity, the implications extend beyond individual wellbeing and present businesses with issues relating to productivity and engagement.

The impact of a languishing workforce can differ depending on factors such as employee personality type and work envirmoment, however it will almost certainly disrupt an individual’s ability to focus. A new study from employment agency Randstad UK finds that more than two in five workers say they are languishing as a result of the pandemic.

A third said that their motivation has been dulled and 42% said that they are feeling aimless. Languishing also has the potential to create tensions in the business. For example, peers might misinterpret someone who is languishing as not pulling their weight and others may have to pick up the slack.

Languishing may also be increased by once-temporary remote working strategies becoming permanent. Despite evidence that suggests remote work has a positive impact on mental health, some employees thrive in the office environment and need other people to bounce off.

Working from home could cause these individuals to feel disconnected from their co-workers. In turn, this may add to the low-mode associated with languishing.

How to tell if an employee is languishing

Anyone at any level of the business could be languishing, including individuals responsible for the wellbeing of the workforce. To fully support employee wellbeing, managers must begin with understanding the different states of mental wellbeing on the spectrum of flourishing to languishing.

From here it will be easier to identify the signs in others, especially as it is common for individuals to avoid speaking up about their wellbeing issues due to the unfortunate stigma around poor mental health which still lingers.

Common signs of languishing can include:

  • Irritability and indifference
  • Lack of excitement when approaching new tasks
  • General apathy and difficulty getting excited about things.
  • Difficulty focusing on certain tasks on some days
  • Lack of motivation and an inability to focus on responsibilities, leading to procrastination
  • Negative or cynical exchanges with co-workers
  • Isolating and seeming disconnected from co-workers.

The ongoing impact on wellbeing

As we emerge from the pandemic, experts are beginning to see the impact on the world’s mental health and this includes the emergence of less familiar issues, such as languishing. There will be other long term impacts that are yet to arise which will threaten both individual wellbeing and workplace performance.

Those that take the time to understand the factors that contribute to mental and physical wellbeing, common health-problems, their impact, and how to spot these issues, will be best placed to find the right support and help their employees flourish.

By doing so, they will be helping the business flourish too.


About the author

Dr Nick Earley is head of psychology at Happence


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