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How to tackle languishing - the dominant emotion of 2021

The term ‘languishing’ was coined by American sociologist Corey Keyes, who was struck that many people who weren’t depressed also weren’t thriving. The term came to wider attention when the New York Times ran a piece on languishing in March, describing it as the dominant emotion of 2021.

Our research suggests more than two in every five workers in the UK suffer from some of the symptoms of ‘languishing’. The pandemic has dulled their concentration, sapped their motivation and left them feeling aimless – the number of people feeling more aimless since the start of the pandemic outweighs the number feeling less so by three to one. 

These employees feel despondent, drained and indifferent. They’re despairing quietly and their drive has dwindled. They aren’t mentally ill, necessarily, but they’re struggling. 

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The scale of the problem should worry employers, if only for selfish reasons: they are going to need employees who are fired up if they are to rebuild their businesses post-COVID. Currently, a huge slice of the UK's workforce is not the picture of mental health and are unlikely to be functioning at full capacity.

What to do? First, label the languishing feeling; don't try to paper over it. Instead, engage team members who are languishing. Name it and invite them to talk about it. This should trigger their positive self-coach voice, but it could also spark doubts in their abilities. Be ready for that. Feed the helpful, positive self-coach. 

Engage people in creating a productive answer to the question: 'What is this emotion telling me?' The self-critic answers with a list of character defects: 'I’m lazy, unfocused, rudderless.' The self-coach answers with a list of actions: 'I need to think differently.'

You can amplify that positive voice in a demoralised colleague – and muffle the self-critic – by framing negative emotion as a sign of meaning. For example, you could say, 'This really matters to you doesn’t it?' or 'I can see how important this is to you.' Seeing negative emotion as a sign of passion can help feed productive motivation.

Leadership is critical. Try sharing your own stories – key moments where you felt you were too aimless and were subsequently able to push forward.  

I’d also suggest you need to help channel energy to action. The energy that underlies negative emotion can be channeled into things we can control. Help paint a clear picture of the gap that exists between a future of action and one of inaction. Use the difference to channel energy into action. Start by asking the person to imagine how he or she will feel if nothing changes, if the stagnation remains.

'How will you feel in 90 days if you don't do anything about this?' Follow up with: 'And how would it feel if you were able to change things and move on?' Try to highlight the emotional gap between action and inaction so the employee is ready to embrace positive steps forward.

For my last bit of advice, I turn to Alastair Campbell, once Tony Blair’s director of communications and now a mental health ambassador, who spoke at a webinar on mental health we hosted recently. Drawing on the lessons of his own mental health experiences, he told us: “There is also an awful lot we can do for ourselves. Sleep, diet, exercise, understanding the importance of relationships, and drawing on the support of our partners, families, and friends.

"Undertaking meaningful activities. Enjoying interests away from work. We have to accept our own responsibility as well as look to others."

On that note, don’t forget to practice what you preach.


Victoria Short is the CEO of Randstad UK