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Languishing to Flourishing – the Next Step in the Back-to-the-Office Journey

The emotional long haul of the pandemic has taken a toll on everyone and we need to understand how that will impact productivity and profitability as everyone starts drifting back to the office. It’s called ‘languishing’ and here’s what you can do about it.

Bernadette Eichner
Bernadette Eichner
Employees around the office

Did you experience an element of ‘blah’ during the last long lockdown period? Felt a bit ‘down’ but not depressed? Felt a bit ’burnt out’ but still had a level of energy? Had trouble concentrating and staying focussed? Stopped planning too much in advance?

Did you wonder what was going on with your brain?

Well, it’s actually a thing. ‘Languishing’ is the middle child of mental health and sits between depression and flourishing – a sense of stagnation, if you like. A state of being where you feel like you are just ‘muddling through’, doing what needs to be done but waiting for a sense of direction and purpose. You don’t have clinical symptoms of poor mental health but you’re not functioning at your best and happiest either.

Sociologist Corey Keyes, a pioneer of the positive psychology movement, coined the phrase when his research continued to throw up a multitude of people who weren’t flourishing but also weren’t depressed. Keen to understand what was going on, he dug a bit deeper. What he found was that people were all reporting the same feelings:

  • A feeling of not being ‘present’ in their lives
  • Feeling ‘stuck’ as if in a sort of limbo – stagnating
  • A bit overwhelmed by life
  • A bit ‘flat’ but at the same time restless
  • Alternating between periods of fatigue and bursts of energy
  • Feeling ‘uncertain’ about things and perhaps even anxious about the future
  • Suffering from periods of apathy – “why am I bothering?”
  • Looking forward to getting back to ‘real life’ but anxious about that at the same time
  • Finding it hard to concentrate on things for extended periods of time
  • Finding it hard to get motivated
  • The line between the desk, dinner and the dishes was so blurred that it was hard to establish and maintain a structure
  • Social engagements over Zoom or FaceTime weren’t enough to feel truly connected

But the research also pointed in a more disturbing direction – that those people suffering from ‘languishing’ today, are those that are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety in the years to come if they don’t recognise what’s going on and do something about it.

The New York Times columnist, Adam Grant was one of the first to write about how the pandemic has contributed to a global phenomenon of languishing. In a recent article he talks about how the removal of boundaries between work and home, social disconnection, fear of the disease, vaccination requirements, changing states of personal relationships, financial insecurity, anxiety about the future and so on have messed with our brains.

So, what’s all this got to do with people coming back to work I hear you say?

With people starting to return to their office environments and employers putting pressure on productivity and results, there’s a general feeling that we just need to get back to what life was like before and we’ll all feel better. A bit of an ‘ignore it and it will go away’ approach.

But the emotional long haul of the pandemic has taken a toll on everyone and as we see people starting to drift back to the office we’re seeing the results in their productivity and performance not being what we expected to get.

People who are languishing at work look like they are:

  • Feeling disconnected or dissociated from their coworkers
  • Being irritable, confused, or sad
  • Unable to get excited about upcoming projects
  • Having difficulty focussing or remembering things
  • A bit cynical about their leaders, colleagues, or career
  • Procrastinating a lot
  • Don’t seem to be motivated to complete assignments on time or to a high quality

Some of the comments we’re hearing are things like:

“She’s just not the firecracker she used to be”

“He spends most of his day having coffee with people”

“Deadlines don’t seem to mean much any more”

“She was happy to come back in three days a week but now that seems to much”

“He’s constantly making excuses for things not getting done”

“She’s become really ‘needy’ and it’s driving us mad”

“He seems to not care any more”

“He’s expecting to be able to work remotely forever and that’s just not going to happen”

“She doesn’t seem to have any urgency about anything”

These are all comments on someone’s behavior when what we need to be doing is understanding what’s going on and why. Deal with the root of the problem rather than the symptoms of it.

Your people need to be brought out of their languishing state and they’ll need your help to do that.

How to move people from languishing to flourishing again

The thing about mental health states is that they reside within that person’s brain and in that sense have created their reality. In our attempts to help them (or get them past it), we often turn to platitudes and suggestions that aren’t recognising their unique state but rather telling them how they should think.

Imposing what we think on another person in an attempt to get them to think differently is a highway to disappointment and frustration – all they will hear is criticism, judgement and a lack of understanding.

What we need to be doing is recognising what’s going on, acknowledging it, understanding why the person is behaving the way they are and implementing strategies to bring them out of it.

Here’s some ideas.

1. Host a ‘From Languishing to Flourishing’ team workshop

There’s nothing as powerful in a relationship than empathy – at home, at work, in the community. A workshop designed to acknowledge how people feel, accept why they may be feeling that way and come up with strategies to work through it together is a brilliant way of dealing with the elephant in the room and sending the message that you understand and you care. It doesn’t need to be a whole day thing. Perhaps a couple of hours one afternoon followed by drinks and a bit of cheese on a biscuit. With a good facilitator, this will go a long way to helping your staff understand their own feelings and be a great demonstration of your care, understanding and emotional intelligence as a leader. Heck, you may be languishing a bit yourself, so what better way to move on healthily than to share the process.

2. Create solid and reliable work structures/agreements to foster progress and productivity

If you’ve decided on a staged return to the office program or have offered hybrid working agreements to people, it’s a good idea to be clear about what that means. Ideally, you want to put a structure in place that works for both parties but is then adhered to. This is a great way of re-introducing some discipline and routine back into people’s lives. Try to avoid the old “come in any day that you like” arrangement. This creates a level of ambiguity that makes planning meetings and having spontaneous catch-ups very difficult and also creates an environment that enables people to ‘hide’ if they’d rather avoid someone than work through an issue.

3. Encourage teams to be in the office at least twice a week together

If you’re doing the staged return approach or leaving it up to individuals to come in when it suits them, encourage team leaders to get everyone in together at least twice a week. One of the things we suffered most from this past year was the sense of social disconnection but we got used to (albeit because of languishing) and learned to adapt. The most important thing as we return to the office is to create opportunities to learn how to connect again – it is through connection and shared energy that creativity and ideas are brought to fruition, and energy and motivation are catching.

4. Focus on small goals and wins

The pandemic was filled with a sense of loss for many and fostered an inability (or unwillingness) to see the big picture. It was easy to get overwhelmed by thinking too far ahead or setting big goals, so we didn’t. The most important factor in job satisfaction and motivation is a sense of progress. Focus on small wins when people come back to work. And celebrate them.

5. Stay outcome focussed rather than micromanaging

Micromanaging is poor form at any time but it’s a killer when people are feeling a bit lost and dazed. What they need to come back to the post-pandemic world is a carrot, not a stick. Working to outcomes and celebrating the small achievements along the way will motivate and inspire people much more successfully than making them think they can’t be trusted or are incompetent.

6. Give people ‘permission’ to have coffee meetings

We missed people when we couldn’t properly see them. Let’s face it, Zoom and FaceTime just didn’t cut it after the novelty wore off, and I’d rather you poked me in the eye with a stick than put me into a Zoom Trivia team! The loss of social connection is a big part of languishing. Expect your team to want to spend time catching up properly with each other. If you tell them they can have as many coffee meetings as they want, as long as there is an outcome of progress on something at the end of each meeting, then you’ve ticked two boxes – you’ve not micromanaged but you’ve fostered a mindset of progress.

7. Check in on them weekly to see how they are doing

Make sure you touch base with people on a regular basis to check how they are going. This doesn’t have to be a formal sit-down or therapy style session – a quick stop at their desk or a chat in the tea room is enough. And it doesn’t even need to be a chat about feelings (I can hear a sigh of relief here) – you could be just checking in on them about the progress of a project and seeing if there’s anything they need. Or you might be asking after their kids or partner. Any genuine acknowledgement that they exist and are of value will be enough to re-connect them with you and the office. The only rule here is it must be in person – emails and phone calls don’t mean the same.

‘Together We Achieve More’ has never been more true

We all galvanised and worked together beautifully to adapt to the conditions of the pandemic and then did it again with the vaccination rollout. But the job isn’t yet done. We now need to ease everyone back in – to protect both our businesses and their mental health.

Following the tips above is a great way to get started!

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Bernadette Eichner
Bernadette Eichner

Bernadette Eichner, Cofounder and CEO of Just Right People, is a recruitment industry entrepreneur and thought leader in Australia, totally committed to improving the recruiter experience for clients and candidates alike. Her secret to life is to “just do the next thing that needs to be done”.

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