Team Got the Blahs? Here’s What Leaders Need to Know

Has your team got the blahs? They might not say so, but if you look closely, the signs are there: deadlines slipping, lack of interest in normally exciting things. And if you’re being totally honest with yourself, maybe you’re feeling it too? Now that the COVID vaccine supply is soon expected to outpace demand in the United States, you’d think there’d be a larger sense of relief and hopefulness. Instead, it appears that many people are still feeling a huge case of “Meh.” Wharton psychologist Adam Grant writes in the New York Times that we are collectively languishing — a sort of emotional “long hauler” reaction to the effects of a multi-year pandemic. 

What is languishing and why should leaders pay attention?

The word “languish” means to lose vigor, as through grief. Much has been written about the collective grief we experienced during the pandemic. But now, 14 months on, there’s a new emotion at play for many of us. As Grant writes in his New York Times piece, “Languishing is not merely in our heads — it’s in our circumstances. As we head into a new post-pandemic reality, it’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being. ‘Not depressed’ doesn’t mean you’re not struggling. ‘Not burned out’ doesn’t mean you’re fired up.” 

Why should you, as a leader, pay attention to someone who’s languishing? On the surface, the “blahs” might seem not so bad. Until, of course, they develop into something worse. In his NYT piece, Grant cites research that languishing is like a ticking time bomb: studies from early COVID health care workers showed that languishing employees were three times as likely to develop PTSD. So it’s up to leaders to be aware that just because someone isn’t visibly displaying signs of distress, there may be something lurking that requires attention.

“Not depressed” doesn’t mean you’re not struggling.

Adam Grant, Psychology Professor at The Wharton School

It’s likely that many of your colleagues are languishing, and they don’t know it. Psychiatrist Mark Goulston works with PTSD patients and is co-author of the book, Why Cope When You Can Heal?  He states that naming an emotion is a powerful first step in moving forward. “Paradoxically, naming a feeling that you’re having and letting yourself fully experience it can help lessen feelings of tension” rather than increase it, he writes. If you sense that a team member is feeling “blah” perhaps you can simply say, “I notice that you’re not up to your usual energy these days. How are you feeling?” That may open the door to exploring their sense of malaise. 

Clues that your team has the blahs

So how can leaders tell if team members are languishing? Here are four clues to help you decide. 

People can’t concentrate. If you’ve recently found yourself having a thought, turning around to write it down and then forgetting by the time your pen hit the paper, you’re not alone. And your team members are feeling it too. According to Lily Brown, PhD, an assistant professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, extended stress can cause a person’s limbic system to override the brain’s “executive functions” like planning and concentration

Attendance is dipping. Whether it’s opting out of Zoom meetings or calling in sick, people are coping by not showing up. To help with the fatigue companies are implementing Zoom-free Fridays and easing up on 100% camera-on mandates. 

Normal tasks take longer. If deadlines are slipping, or you’re seeing  more errors than usual it’s possible a sense of “blah” has taken hold. Or, it could be that communication processes are breaking down due to continued work from home. In either case, it’s important to get to the root cause—and if it’s a case of “foggy brain” be prepared to offer some grace.  

Difficulty discussing new ventures. If you’ve conducted any sort of brainstorming or problem-solving discussion in the last six months, you may have noticed even your most prolific idea generators have come up dry. That’s because long-term anxiety and uncertainty can actually alter the way the brain handles cognition, according to this New York Times report.

What if you don’t see any of these clues? It doesn’t mean that everybody is coping productively. Given that 9 out of 10 employees state that they are more stressed since the start of the pandemic, it’s more likely that your team is hiding it from you. So be on the lookout and be ready to listen, show compassion and if needed, refer out to a mental health professional. You’re not expected to be a counselor, but you can offer support for those who are suffering.

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