How to address ‘learned helplessness’ in the workplace

Brendan Street - Nuffield Health

Brendan Street Nuffield Health

Brendan Street – Nuffield Health

Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health spoke to Business Leader about the future of employee wellbeing as we move towards the end of lockdown.

Research clearly shows the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the workplace, with employees reporting a marked impact on their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Excessive workloads, anxiety around job security and the future of their role and a general lack of control over their situation are among the key contributing factors to this growing feeling of negativity and helplessness.

Business leaders have a responsibility to not only notice these signs of distress in their team but also to provide timely interventions, nurturing a positive workplace that supports the emotional needs of its people.

What is ‘learned helplessness’?

Learned helplessness refers to the feeling of inability to change – or lack of control over – a situation. This happens when an individual is exposed to an environment that they can’t change repeatedly or long-term. The individual eventually resigns themselves to feeling helpless over its outcomes.

This is a growing trend in the modern workplace, with employees feeling stuck in the limbo of the pandemic. This long-term uncertainty, exacerbated by the stressors of remote working or furlough, has changed the way many employees are responding to their current situation.

Many initially saw the pandemic as an opportunity to adapt to new ways of working and even relished the challenge. Now, learned helplessness, and a pandemic fatigue, has seen this positive attitude turning to pessimism, frustration, lack of effort and even ‘passivity’. Here, employees lose the will to react to or try to change an ongoing, growing negative outlook. This outlook may have slightly improved due to recent government announcements, however the negative outlook and pessimism may sustain.

Many employees may have given up trying to make the best out of their situation and instead have fallen into patterns of unhelpful thinking instead– worrying ‘what if?’, instead of focusing on the aspects of their life they can control. For many, high levels of pandemic fatigue may lead to pervasive worries about the future, even with the potential for easing of lockdown measures.

These constant catastrophic thoughts can lead to feelings of long-term anxiety, low mood and depression. In turn, chronic mental ill-health can result in physical ailments too, with common symptoms including headaches, fatigue, nausea and stomach problems.

Noticing the signs

While managers cannot be expected to be medical experts – diagnosing colleagues and providing medical interventions – they do have a responsibility to notice the signs of learned helplessness and signpost those towards relevant support.

Employees experiencing learned helplessness may find it difficult to maintain their usual levels of work performance. Not only do symptoms of chronic stress make productivity a struggle but it can also impact concentration and motivation.

This may become obvious in an individual’s behaviour, for example, if they regularly log on late or there is a noticeable dip in their work standards. However, it may be more subtle, for example, an individual becoming quieter and more reserved, taking a negative attitude towards work or reducing communication with colleagues and in meetings.

Managers noticing these changes in their team have a responsibility to support them in making positive changes. Individuals often fail to notice signs of distress in themselves, so it can help to raise awareness of how prevalent pandemic fatigue is and let employees know it’s normal to not always feel at peak mental fitness. It’s okay not to be okay.

Send regular emails encouraging team members to think about their emotional wellbeing. Focus on ‘wellness’ rather than ‘illness’ to normalise the idea that everyone’s mental fitness dips from time to time – especially during difficult situations –  and there are steps they can take to get back to full fitness.

This messaging could include questions such as ‘how could you improve your mental health?’ which can help employees achieve the lightbulb moment of realisation they might need additional support.

It also helps if those in more senior positions share their lived experiences when it comes to mental distress. Consider sharing stories from directors and managers about their personal experiences and the interventions they turn to when they want to return to their maximum mental fitness.

For those experiencing learned helplessness, these authentic stories show it’s possible to take control of your emotional wellbeing and that they don’t have to let these feelings simply ‘happen’ to them.

Plus, it gradually reduces stigma in the workplace, showing even those who many view as ‘mentally strong’ can experience distress and unhelpful thinking.

Providing workplace support

Those managing individuals who are showing signs of learned helplessness must try to help them ‘thrive’. This refers to the feeling of emotional resilience and mental energy which comes from making helpful changes and adopting positive thinking patterns.

In such uncertain times – when many are finding it difficult to maintain positive thoughts and make proactive changes – it can be difficult for managers to encourage individuals to adopt helpful behaviours. In these cases, small and simple techniques can help with the initial cut-through.

Begin by offering come clarity around remote working expectations, letting employees know they aren’t expected to work longer hours or skip lunch just because they’re at home and are no longer commuting. This helps employees set boundaries and reduces the risk of stress and burnout from overworking. Encourage employees to take time to get out of the house, for a walk or even just stand in the fresh air.

Some additional helpful advice includes encouraging employees to avoid ‘doomscrolling’ – constantly scrolling social media for negative stories – and practice mindfulness techniques.

Another simple way to improve mental health is by making positive changes to improve their physical health. Managers should promote the benefits of exercise and daylight during lunch breaks and encourage healthy eating – possibly through the offer of fresh food vouchers for employees.

Managers can then let employees know there’s additional support on offer via the business. For example, offering remote access to psychotherapy sessions (such as CBT) lets employees speak confidentially with a therapist who can help them work through challenging difficulties and emotions.

Similarly, online Self-Help CBT courses help individuals recognise and understand their unhelpful behaviours and negative thinking patterns. They can work through modules at their own pace and revisit key topics to address the triggers of their learned helplessness.

We must also remember our mental health exists on a continuum from excelling to in-crisis. We all exist somewhere on this continuum day to day, week to week, our position depending on what is happening to us in our lives.  Our language should reflect this reality.

For example, instead of focusing on the statistic ‘1 in 4 people’ have mental ill-health, we should raise awareness of the fact ‘4 in 4 people’ have mental health and mental health is much more than the absence of mental ill health. Mental health can be nurtured and improved upon.

Offering interventions to the wider workforce gives ‘mentally fit’ employees the learned skills to notice and address signs of struggle in themselves, too, when they notice a decline in their mental fitness down the line.

Consider emotional literacy training or emotional wellbeing manager training to equip those on the front line with the skills to identify signs of mental ill-health in others and the confidence to support them.

Finally, all leaders should remember to ‘secure their own oxygen mask before helping others’. It is critical to take care of ourselves first, in order to be able to support others. As leaders we have a responsibility to notice our own signs of distress and take care of ourselves, so we are ready to notice and intervene to support others.

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