In 2020, we were introduced to the phenomenon of pandemic fatigue - a mental state caused by prolonged, heightened states of fear and caution. With almost a year since the onset of the new normal, the extended period of fatigue has brought renewed attention to the strain of constant weariness and dissatisfaction experienced by so many around the world. The term ‘languishing’ was most recently used by psychologist Adam Grant to describe the dominant mental health concern of 2021, although the feelings that it describes have long existed before the arrival of the pandemic. In fact, the term was first coined by sociologist Corey Keyes, PhD, almost 20 years ago in 20031, and is known today as the “neglected middle child of mental health”2. While many of us have found ways to adapt to the necessary changes brought about by the pandemic, the unrelenting sense of uncertainty has also caused many to sink into this state of languishing.
What is languishing?
Simply put, languishing lies in the middle of the spectrum between wellbeing (flourishing) and illbeing (depression). Typical discussions of mental health can seem to skew towards either end as they are easier to define, but a lack of definition may not necessarily point to a state of good mental health either. In this context, languishing results in a sense of stagnation and hollowness that makes us feel drained and aimless in our day-to-day lives. It can also cause us to lose our focus, resulting in a creeping lack of motivation and productivity that is hard to notice.
Worryingly, research has shown that languishing can be more common than major depression and, in some ways, also be a major risk factor for mental health conditions. A decade-long study found that it predicted mental illness3, and more recently, it also indicated a higher risk of provisional PTSD amongst healthcare workers4. Given that it lies between major emotional states and conditions, it can be hard to identify and address the situation when we find ourselves languishing, which means that it is also easier to dismiss the signs as mere laziness or moodiness. Giving it the attention it needs is therefore the first proper step to achieving better awareness and solutions in our journey for Whole Person Health.
How can we address it?
Beyond equipping ourselves with the necessary knowledge, the best way to address languishing boils down to the acknowledgement and adjustment of our daily habits. The following are two main ways that we can do so, especially in the context of the workplace.
Oftentimes when we are struggling, what we are looking for is not for other people to solve our problems. Rather, what we need is a listening ear and the validation of our feelings. Starting a company-wide conversation around the topic of languishing can not only help in this regard, but it can also help our colleagues better understand what others may be going through. These conversations have a crucial role to play in the restructuring of how we view mental health as a community. More often than not, our wellbeing is discussed in absolute terms, but the absence of mental illness does not always mean that we are flourishing. Being able to engage in discussions that challenge these norms allows us to shine a light on the way we view mental health as a society and to find symptoms of languishing in our own lives.
According to experts like Grant and Keyes, one of the best ways to address a growing sense of languishing is by adjusting how we approach our daily activities and committing to a sense of flow. This can be done by watching movies, playing games, practising a hobby, finding meaningful challenges for self-improvement, along with countless other options. There is flow as long as we find ourselves fully absorbed by the activity before us, to the extent that we lose our sense of time, place and self. However, this is easier said than done these days, as it can be hard to focus if we are constantly plagued by distractions and interruptions. It is not uncommon for most of us to switch tasks impulsively or have our attention diverted by the daily barrage of emails and notifications. Working from home can also exacerbate the problem as there are potentially more distractions from our family members and the things around us. It is therefore even more important for us to set aside quality, uninterrupted time to engage our personal flow in this day and age. Doing so will allow us to enjoy rare moments of peace and mindfulness that can also improve our mental strength, increase productivity, as well as spark creativity. In time, regular practice can make it easier for us to focus on the present and move away from languishing.
As a company, we can help our employees to find their flow by creating blocks of time where employees are encouraged to work on something important to them without any distractions. This can mean urging our teams not to schedule meetings during this set period of time and to turn off notifications when doing so. Scheduling these daily flow sessions in the morning may even help give employees a productive start for the day ahead.
Over to you
Ultimately, solutions work best with consistent practice. Research5 has shown it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days for our behavioural changes to become a new habit, which means this is a process that will take time, patience and self-compassion. Providing employees with the proper empowerment and encouragement can help them to achieve more consistent wins and cultivate a positive habit that will go a long way in building individual resilience. And while it may be frustrating at times, it helps to remember that these small steps will change our wellness culture for the better so that you and your employees can stop languishing and start thriving.
1. Keyes, C. (2003). Complete mental health: An agenda for the 21st century. Flourishing: Positive Psychology And The Life Well-Lived.
2. Grant, A. (2021). There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. New York Times.
3. Keyes, C., Dhingra, S., & Simoes, E. (2010). Change in Level of Positive Mental Health as a Predictor of Future Risk of Mental Illness.
4. Bassi, M., Negri, L., Delle Fave, A., & Accardi, R. (2021). The relationship between post-traumatic stress and positive mental health symptoms among health workers during COVID-19 pandemic in Lombardy, Italy.
5. Healthline. (2019). How Long Does It Actually Take to Form A New Habit?.