In part three of HRM’s long-term impacts of COVID-19 series, we explore what prolonged exposure to feelings of languishing, grief and loneliness is doing to our mental health.
Warning: this article discusses mental illness and may be distressing for some readers. If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
There was a strange moment mid-last year when I realised I was lonely.
That was an unusual feeling for me. Even as an introvert, I have always had a lot of friends, but I moved cities and started a new job about a month before most of Australia went into lockdown. That left me isolated from old friends and restricted my ability to make new ones.
Of course, I wasn’t alone in feeling lonely. Almost 50 per cent of Australians were experienicng loneliness at the time. And that wasn’t the only feeling we were grappling with. As we mourned the loss of our connections, grief became an overwhelming part of our lives.
For many people, the rapid disruption of COVID-19 initially created a flurry of productivity. However, as the pandemic dragged on, that productivity spike quickly dropped off and it became apparent many weren’t coping as well as we thought. Reports of employee burnout skyrocketed and experts’ warned a mental health crisis was on the horizon.
There were also plenty of people caught in limbo between feelings – not depressed, but not all that happy either, just existing. This is what experts call languishing.
If you feel like you’re just going through the motions day in, day out, you’re probably languishing.
HRM asked an expert about some of the long-term impacts that COVID-19 could have on our mental health.
Less flourishing, more languishing
Organisational psychologist and host of the WorkLife podcast Adam Grant calls languishing “the neglected middle child of mental health”.
“It’s the void between depression and flourishing – the absence of wellbeing. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either,” Grant wrote in a now viral New York Times op-ed.
Originally coined by American sociologist and psychologist Corey Keyes, languishing is the opposite to flourishing. It can be experienced as a sense of apathy, restlessness or a general disengagement from life.
There isn’t much data on the number of people languishing, but according to a 2020 report from the Wellbeing Lab and AHRI over 40 per cent of respondents said they were ‘not feeling bad, just getting by’ – which sounds remarkably similar to languishing.
Unlike depressive episodes, you can still function while languishing. You can still smile and laugh, but that doesn’t mean you are doing well.
“Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference,” Grant writes.
A slow recovery
“Through the pandemic, people who were already mentally unwell were like ‘Welcome to my world, this is where I live’’’, says Dr Michelle Lim, senior lecturer of clinical psychology at Swinburne University and chairperson of Ending Loneliness Together.
According to Lim, people who were struggling with their mental health before the pandemic have not only continued to deteriorate but will recover at a slower rate. Employers have a responsibility to prevent mental health problems, she says.
“We tend to wait to deal with mental health issues. We wait until there’s a suicide or someone has to take months off work because of their mental health. We don’t take enough of a preventive approach.”
Workplaces that do take the time to focus on wellbeing see increases in employee satisfaction, engagement and productivity. It also decreases workplace injuries and improves retention.
What workplaces can do
In Grant’s NYT article, he proposes ‘flow’ as the antidote to languishing. According to Grant, flow (also called deep work) is the complete immersion in a task. When you’re in the flow you forget who you are and become completely entranced by what you’re doing.
The problem with finding flow is that it requires a solid chunk of time without disruption, which is not always easy when our days are crammed with meetings and our inboxes full of emails that need an immediate response.
There are a couple of ways workplaces can combat this. One option is to implement meeting free days. An organisation in India saw a nearly 20 per cent jump in productivity when it banned meetings before noon three days a week.
The other approach is to empower employees to block out sections of their calendar for deep working. For this to work, however, all employees need to respect these boundaries. Some messaging or email platforms offer the ability for employees to change their status; this can be a handy way for an employee to broadcast when they’re uninterruptible.
Lim suggests workplaces take the time to rebuild connections between employees. However, to do this, people need to head back to the workplace for at least part of their working week.
“Humans need incidental interactions, and the workplace is where many of those happen,” she says.
“‘Water cooler chats’ can actually pave the way for good relationships and employees who have better relationships with their colleagues are better workers.”
Lim also thinks workplaces could design spaces that facilitate better connections between employees.
“We need to be smarter and build spaces that mean people can come together to have the opportunity to interact,” says Lim.
“The human factor is going to be up to the employees themselves, but employers can take control of the environmental factors and that’s really important.”
A hidden epidemic
Workplaces have a responsibility to prevent mental illness. if they don’t Australia might find itself drowning in a mental health tsunami.
As Grant points out, “The people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade aren’t the ones with those symptoms today. They’re the people who are languishing right now.”
Last year was rough for Australia. Between the bushfires and the pandemic, it’s no wonder we’re struggling. But our reasons to be concerned should go back further than 12 months.
A study published last year in the The European Journal of Health Economics found a positive link between higher numbers of affective disorders (such as depression) and those impacted by the global financial crisis.
An obvious reason for this is the direct link between unemployment and mental health, but the authors also suggest those who are employed suffer due to higher levels of job insecurity.
HRM has previously explored how job insecurity can change our personality. Long-term job insecurity can decrease agreeableness and conscientiousness, and increase neuroticism. Those who are highly neurotic are also more likely to develop both anxiety and depression. It’s also linked to higher likelihood of substance abuse.
Workplaces can ease employees’ minds over job insecurity by creating stability and consistency. The easiest way to do that is to move away from casual roles and offer permanent positions where you can.
Lim also suggests helping employees to find meaning in their work.
“We know from psychological studies that if you feel like you have a meaning and purpose, you will thrive and flourish as opposed to just functioning.”
There are always going to be employees who aren’t looking for meaning in their work; for them work is a means to an end. Lim says it’s okay to acknowledge that, but it doesn’t mean they don’t need attention.
“We have a responsibility to help people move along in their trajectory. And that’s actually part of the fun. It’s nice meeting people who come in and out of your work life or your personal life and see them make that transition [to another stage in life],” she says
“Think beyond employees as a single faceted entity. They are very multifaceted. If we do that I think we have a chance of making a difference.”
Take AHRI’s short course to understand mental health in the workplace.