Rather than struggling, languishing is cited as a lack of mental flourishing. And if it’s not addressed, it could lead to far bigger problems.
Psychologists define it as a state of aimlessness, stagnation or emptiness.
Those who have experienced it describe it as going through the motions: a grey fug descends, the lights dim, a sense of drive is lost in the void.
But this isn’t depression, nor burnout. Rather, these are the symptoms of languishing.
According to organisational psychologist Adam Grant, it’s the “neglected middle child of mental health”. It’s often an emotional state defined by what’s missing. Instead of the presence of a mental health disorder, it’s the absence of flourishing.
Compared to an acute depressive episode, languishing has a slow, dulling effect.
There are signs that the wax and wane of the pandemic has caused a spike in languishing.
When Grant’s New York Times article on the subject was published in April 2021, it went viral, resonating with audiences across the globe who were struggling to put their finger on their emotional state.
Eighteen months on, people are returning to a relatively normal version of their work and home lives, and a sense of dread and fear has mostly dissipated.
Instead, after navigating various lockdowns, remote working challenges and personal traumas, many employees have come through the other side. And the lingering feeling isn’t great, nor terrible. It’s just ‘meh’.
Prevalence of languishing
There’s a natural ebb and flow to personal wellbeing. Michelle McQuaid, founder of the Wellbeing Lab in Melbourne, says mental health exists in a continuum, ranging from thriving at its zenith to depression at its nadir. Hovering in the middle is languishing.
“These workers are lower in thriving, but not necessarily high in struggle,” says McQuaid.
“They report that they’re not feeling bad, they’re just getting by. They may not like to admit if they’re struggling, or seek the help they need.”
Since 2018, the Wellbeing Lab has collaborated with AHRI in researching mental health in the workplace.
In August 2020, McQuaid’s survey of 1400 full-time workers representative of the Australian workforce showed that nearly half reported they were languishing.
In the workplace, languishing manifests in all sorts of ways.
“There’s a general lack of engagement and energy,” says McQuaid. “The pace of work drops. Active participation falls. There’s greater procrastination, poorer decision-making and reduced social interactions.”
The biggest cost of languishing, however, is where it can lead.
“If we pull away from the relationships that may support us… we can sink towards depression,” she says.
Why it’s on the rise
Our minds crave certainty. It’s why we form rituals and routines. When those are taken away, we can be caught in an emotional tailspin: our struggles rise, we find it harder to thrive, our wellbeing nosedives.
“There’s a feeling of stagnation with languishing,” says Grace Lordan, Associate Professor in Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics.
“Through the pandemic, we became used to things being out of our control – that feeds a sense of languishing and feeling stuck.”
For many, however, it has been in the years following the peak of COVID-19 that languishing has appeared. As the novelty of lockdown faded, the initial wave of panic gave way to a more general sense of unease. Rather than have decisions made for us by those in power, we had to begin carving out new daily rhythms in a world that felt different, yet also strangely familiar.
“I think the biggest ‘meh’ moment was when we went back to work,” says Lordan.
“It feels like not much has changed in the office despite promises of a great work renaissance. Compared to the early days of the pandemic, management may not be taking as much notice of employee wellbeing, and there continues to be uncertainty around hybrid working in the long term.”
How to address it
There’s a tier that sits between thriving and languishing on the mental health continuum, and that’s resilience.
In McQuaid’s May 2021 research, this category swelled in size.
“More and more workers reported they were living well despite struggles,” she explains.
“Conversations around wellbeing increased and, through the uncertainty, work offered us consistency and routine.”
It’s this state of wellbeing that’s the target for workers currently languishing.
“There’s no statistical difference between the top two categories [thriving and resilience] in terms of engagement, productivity or job satisfaction. In fact, our research showed those consistently thriving without struggle are actually much more fragile – the resilient ones thrive despite challenges.”
Crucially, those experiencing languishing can go either way, stoically rising in the face of problems, or slipping down into a depressive state.
Perceiving when someone is languishing is therefore crucial.
“If someone is participating less, is acting sharper with others or more withdrawn, then I’d begin a conversation with them on how they’re doing. If they say they’re fine, it can be something to monitor over the following month: punctuality issues, quality of work, whether deadlines are still being met.”
While McQuaid’s research showed more resilience among employees last year, she fears that languishing could peak when she next surveys the workforce again late in 2022.
“We’ve all been running a marathon through the pandemic. We think we’ve crossed the finish line, only to have to keep going with the cost-of-living crisis. Fatigue has crept in: we have some energy left, but not enough if we have to go hard.”
“There’s a general lack of engagement and energy with languishing. The pace of work drops. Active participation falls. There’s greater procrastination, poorer decision making and reduced social interactions.” – Michelle McQuaid
It means awareness of languishing is perhaps more important than ever.
“The group who are languishing provide the best opportunity for intervention in terms of mental health and wellbeing.
“If someone reports being low in thriving, it could be because they lack the knowledge, tools or support to move up the continuum. Coaching, wellbeing programs and apps can help them.”
Around half of an employee’s waking hours are spent at work. So, naturally, their job has a huge impact on their wellbeing.
Lordan believes it falls on employers to strengthen the connection between a person and their work through strategies such as job crafting.
“Giving people more voice and visibility within a company always helps,” says Lordan.
“It’s about connecting a person’s skills, talent and ability to the company mission, and making it clear how they’re needed in order to fulfil that mission. That way they have a renewed enthusiasm about their work and feel joy, flow and engagement again.”
But it’s not always on HR to help someone out of a languishing state. In times of hardship, it’s ok to just be getting by.
“There’s a work context and a personal context,” says McQuaid. “In some situations, languishing can be the healthiest place to be at that moment. And normalising that struggle, as a healthy and normal part of our mental health, can be the simplest way of becoming resilient in time.”
Apply useful techniques at work to help lift your people out of a state of languishing with this short course from AHRI. Book in for the next Mental Health First Aid course on 5 October 2022.