Work has been busy for me. It seems leaders and teams need my support more than ever before, which sees me facilitate and coach almost every day.
I always get people to check in with me and each other at the start of a session and what I have realised is that, more often than not, people, regardless of which continent they live on, feel the ongoing struggle like a void of uncertainty.
And this week I found the perfect description of what we are feeling – the word is ‘languishing’.
I worked with 3 different teams from different industries and countries last week and I asked all of them to check in like this: ‘How are you feeling today from 1 (being very low) to 10 (on top of the world), pick your number and explain why that number. This type of check-in gets people to be specific about the emotion(s) they are experiencing which can be more powerful than asking: ‘How are you doing?’
What I observed is that many leaders said that they usually have a much higher number and are normally way more resilient, but that they feel depleted and they experience ongoing tiredness, exhaustion and numbness. Someone even said, ‘there is this void I don’t seem to be able to overcome. I am not looking forward to anything right now.’
I reflected on this collective feedback and did some research and came across what so perfectly describes what many of us are feeling right now, including myself: languishing.
Adam Fraser published an article in the New York Times about languishing earlier this year and he describes this experience during COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. ‘It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.’
What is Languishing?
Grant describes languishing as ‘a sense of stagnation and emptiness’. While you’re in this state, you may not see the point of things or anticipate any forward direction or fulfillment in your life. You’re not necessarily feeling hopeless—just a bit ‘blah’.
I felt relieved when I learned about the term languishing because it describes the emotional state so well and, as you know, being able to label negative emotions is often healing in itself. It’s what I call ‘name it to tame it’.
When it Looks Like Depression But It’s Not
The feedback I get from team leaders and executives is that they find it important to have wellbeing conversations with the team members, recognise the signs when people are not doing well and support them with the right interventions and resources. But they find it challenging to differentiate between someone being depressed or just a bit down and they don’t want to ‘mislabel someone’.
Verywell Magazine has these insights, ‘Positive emotions, life satisfaction, a sense of meaning, interactions with society, and positive relationships are all concepts that are tied to our sense of mental well-being. Matthew Iasielle, an Australia-based researcher and PhD candidate who studies well-being, tells Verywell that people who are languishing ‘are scoring poorly across those domains. At first glance, these people might seem depressed—but they’re not’. Lasiello says that even though this group of people would not be diagnosed with a mental health condition, ‘they’re very far from getting the most out of life.”
‘Languishing – the neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus — and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021.’ – Adam Grant
Languishing is the ‘middle child’ between wellbeing (flourishing) and mental illness. Often not recognised but when people reach ‘managing’ they start to feel the strain and when this is ongoing (languishing) it can have a substantial impact on wellbeing. At this stage, people often find it hard to ask for help so look out for ‘languishing’ signs.
From Languishing to Flourishing
Even if you’re not languishing, you probably know people who are. Understanding it better can help you help them. We still have a lot to learn about what causes languishing and what to do about it, but naming it might be the first step. It could help to defog our vision, giving us a clearer window into what had been a blurry experience. It could remind us that we aren’t alone, languishing is common and shared.
Some tips and strategies to go from languishing to flourishing:
- Setting Goals: Researchers found that languishing is fuelled by uncertainty and the notion of not ‘having anything to work towards’. Help your team members to set goals more regularly even outside their normal scope so that they stay motivated and have something to work towards. One of my clients does this by encouraging the team to set wellness goals like number of steps achieved or other physical and wellness targets.
- Mindfulness: A term thrown around a lot but often misused or not fully understood. Mindfulness involves intense focus and awareness of what you’re sensing and feeling, moment by moment, without judgment. Practicing mindfulness includes breathing exercises, meditation, physical movement and even reading and connecting. There are great apps to help practice mindfulness. One of my clients has made the app Headspace available to all employees.
- Flow: Adam Grant describes the antidote of languishing as ‘flow’, an elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or momentary bond where sense of time, place and self melts away. What gets you ‘in the flow’? A Sudoku puzzle? A good book? A deep conversation?
- Time for Deep Work: Schedule time in your calendar where you can focus on work where you use the full capacity of your cognitive brain. Switch everything else off (including all alerts) and find solace in experiences that capture your full attention. If it’s out of your control and your workdays are filled with meetings and emails, you are made to react to, have a conversation with your leader and reason with them to secure time slots for ‘deep work time’.
- Celebrate Progress: Set smaller goals and celebrate small wins more often. Some of my clients use simple recognition and reward systems including peer recognition. In your stand-ups and check-ins ask everyone to share something great that happened in the last week and celebrate even small achievements and milestones together.
‘Languishing is not merely in our heads — it’s in our circumstances.’
– Adam Grant
With so many of us feeling ‘a bit blah’ right now and being in this ongoing state of languishing it is important to recognise but not stigmatise depression. Putting some meaning around this state of being and allowing people to be vulnerable and label their emotions without the fear of being perceived as ‘weak’ or hopefully helps us to see the light at the end of the tunnel and that we can all flourish again by helping each other.
Do you want to chat about how you can go from languishing to flourishing? Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org to chat about how we can work together.