Addressing The ‘Learned Helplessness’ Epidemic In The Workplace

How to focus on the things you can control.

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How to focus on the things you can control.


Addressing The ‘Learned Helplessness’ Epidemic In The Workplace

How to focus on the things you can control.

Share this article

The evidence is clear, the nation’s mental health has borne much of the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, especially when it comes to work.

Mounting workloads, anxiety surrounding job security, and forced changes to how many individuals prefer working are key factors in the marked impact on mental health.

Understanding the impact such unprecedented events can have on the workforce goes a long way in helping employers notice signs of distress in their team and signpost them towards the support which can help them go from struggling to thriving.

The ‘learned helplessness’ phenomenon

Learned helplessness is the perception that an individual is unable to control the outcome of a given situation and feels helpless in changing its course.

Prolonged exposure to these negative situations – for example, being stuck in the limbo of the pandemic – can leave employees feeling like a passenger over time, incapable of steering their situation onto a better course.

The reality is, with only a rough guideline regarding a return to workplace normality to cling to, uncertainty can leave many employees susceptible to feeling hopeless.

At first, many viewed the shift to remote working as an opportunity to band together and tackle the issues of workplace communication, productivity and even excel under the perceived increase in freedom. However, it wasn’t long before optimism turned to pessimism for some, as pandemic fatigue set in and employees became frustrated and ‘passive’.

This can lead to unhelpful thinking, often focusing on thoughts of ‘what if?’, instead of the aspects of their life they can control.

These regular catastrophic thoughts can lead to feelings of anxiety, low mood, and depression and, when exacerbated, can cause chronic physical symptoms including nausea, headaches, and fatigue.

Signs of distress

Managers and employers cannot be expected to medically diagnose employees or provide expert medical assistance. However, they do have a responsibility to notice signs of learned helplessness in their team and point them in the direction of relevant support.

Reduced concentration and motivation are among the most common signs of learned helplessness, with chronic stress also making being productive more difficult.

This may become obvious through changes in behaviour, for example, logging on late or inconsistencies in their quality of work. They can also be more subtle, with individuals becoming much quieter than usual or more reserved during team meetings.

It can be difficult for distressed individuals to notice these signs in themselves, so raising awareness of the prevalence of pandemic fatigue in a non-judgemental environment can go a long way in encouraging employees to welcome support and interventions.

Organise regular ‘check-ins’ with staff, over their preferred communication platform, to nurture a ‘mental health first’ mindset. This means prioritising ‘wellness’ over ‘illness’ to normalise the idea that everyone’s mental health dips from time to time and that it’s okay to not always be okay.

Hearing similar experiences coming from those in senior positions can help in reducing the stigma around mental ill-health, too. Sharing personal anecdotes from those in management positions, of their difficulties, can encourage employees to open up themselves and know they can take control of their own emotional wellbeing.

Growing workplace support

It’s important for those managing individuals exhibiting signs of learned helplessness to help them ‘thrive’. This refers to the emotional resilience developed by individuals which helps them cope in stressful situations and adopt positive thinking patterns.

Start by clarifying exactly what is expected of remote employees, focusing on common stressful triggers, like overworking or skipping lunch.

Instead, promote the benefits of exercise and getting some daylight during lunch breaks, as well as a balanced diet. This could include gifting fresh food vouchers or introducing company-wide exercise classes via video call to lead by example. These help employees understand the boundaries between their work and personal lives and can help prevent burnout associated with overworking.

In addition to this, offering interventions like psychotherapy sessions (such as CBT) helps employees recognise damaging thought patterns and teaches them how to work through challenging situations so they recognise and address unhelpful behaviours before they spiral out of control.

Self-help CBT courses also let employees work through modules at a comfortable pace, while revisiting relevant modules, to address potential triggers of learned helplessness.

We must also remember mental health isn’t a binary switch, with some people having mental health and others not. Everyone has mental health which needs maintaining and protecting and those feeling mentally resilient right now could be struggling tomorrow. Our language should reflect this reality.

For example, instead of using the statistic ‘1 in 4 people’ have mental ill-health, raise awareness of the fact ‘4 in 4 people’ have mental health that needs protecting.

Implementing emotional literacy training and emotional wellbeing manager training are examples of corporate wellbeing strategies that equip those on the front line with the confidence to identify signs of mental ill-health in themselves and others.

We have a responsibility to notice our own signs of distress and take care of ourselves before we’re ready to notice and support others.

Brendan Street is Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health.

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Addressing The ‘Learned Helplessness’ Epidemic In The Workplace

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