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Not ill, but not well. The languishing of the “massive middle”

March 11, 2021 - 10 min read

people working together overcome languishing


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One story: Mom in flames

Understanding the spectrum of mental health

A universal problem experienced very personally

Finding market strength in mental strength

This is part 1 of a three-part series on the state of employee mental health and its impact on companies and the people that power them.

The APA helps us define languishing as the absence of mental health, characterized by dissatisfaction, ennui (from a lack of engagement or excitement), apathy, listlessness, and loss of interest in just about everything. 

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One story: Mom in flames

I was a few months back from maternity leave with my youngest son. We’d just moved out of the city, leaving behind friends and routines and gaining a new long commute. The power structure at work was shifting. I had the opportunity for a bigger role. 

If only I wasn’t so tired. 

For two months I’d been winding tighter and tighter, defensive, irritable, not open to others and not open to new ideas, too busy to learn anything. I worked harder and harder but didn’t seem to be completing anything. I was so disappointed in myself for not being something more — I used to have potential. And, I could barely listen to my young team or male colleagues— people I formerly enjoyed. I resented how much time they were wasting, how they could network in the evenings, and how they didn’t have to worry about scheduling the breast pump room around 3-hour team sessions. 

I don’t know why I’m here. I’m getting nowhere doing work that does not matter. I’m such a fraud… I can’t keep this up. I need to quit.  It became a continuous loop inside my head.  

Burnt out? I was crispy.

I didn’t want to quit. I wanted my career. I just couldn’t see a way forward, and I was rapidly losing interest in trying.

Understanding the spectrum of mental health

Mental health isn’t just the absence of illness. It’s a continuum ranging from severe symptoms such as panic attacks and major depression to excellent mental strength and well-being. 

At any given time, some of your employees are doing great and some are in crisis. At one extreme, their well-being is low and they struggle to function. At the other extreme, people are super-functional. They lean into change and challenges, energized by the opportunity to stretch and learn, and have the skills to maintain their own well-being.

It might surprise you to know how many are in-between and how many are on the lower-end of in-between. The graph below shows the distribution of mental health levels for employees across companies and industries over an 11-month period. 

state of mental health - overcome languishing

Our research suggests that 55% of employees at any given time are languishing. 

Those who are languishing experience heightened stress and physical and mental exhaustion. They may be more irritable, confused, sad, or angry — this makes social connections and maintaining positive relationships more difficult, which further decreases their sense of well-being. They struggle to stay focused, to find meaning, and for many, to find optimism and hope for the future. 

When people are languishing, the normal stressors of life and work pile up and hit them harder — everything feels like a struggle. Major transitions and life stages can amplify the effect.

This comports with Gallup research that shows some 62-68% of US employees are not engaged at work and Deloitte’s finding that 46% have no interest-driven motivation for their work (only 14% have high interest and motivation associated with passion for their work). A study released by Qualtrics found that 54.4% of employees reported their mental health as something less than “healthy.”

A universal problem experienced very personally

It’s worth noting that this data came from before the pandemic. Poor mental health was already an issue, but the impact is bigger now.

The past year of turmoil dealt a blow to well-being, confounded by the almost overnight switch to remote work that had people cut off from co-workers and friends and often working in imperfect conditions (albeit in slippers). As the NYT reported, 70% of adult workers now work from home most of the time and many may stay remote

Our data show that those without strong mental health are sleeping worse, being less active, and more worried about the future. Isolation, ongoing uncertainty, and what can feel like relentless change threatens to push the general population — the 90% who don’t have excellent mental strength —  to the left. The risk for companies is that people who are currently languishing develop more critical and severe mental illness, and those who are “in a good enough place” slide down into languishing. 

It is both a human crisis and a risk for companies. But it is an addressable problem.

Improving the mental health and well-being of your workforce can also be an opportunity. When employee mental health improves, day-to-day interactions and relationships improve. Co-workers and teams benefit. So do customers and partners, families and friends. 

Companies that commit to proactive employee mental fitness across the organization can improve the employee experience in ways that fuel performance and growth, for individuals and the organization. 

Finding market strength in mental strength

One of our customers, a $20B+ technology firm, was looking to accelerate their growth and capture the #1 spot in the market from their archnemesis. Leadership realized that their managers needed to be aligned and energized about the growth strategy, so they offered managers leadership coaching targeted at improving collaboration, creativity, and customer-centricity. 

What we found after 4 months stunned our clients. The biggest gains were in lower stress, higher purpose, and higher resilience — each up between 25-30% on average. When our scientists looked into the data they found a strong correlation between these mental fitness outcomes and the leadership results that the client wanted. 

The managers who participated shared that their improvement in mental fitness was the accelerator for their leadership performance. As one manager said, “For 20 years, I had operated under the assumption that taking care of myself meant taking my foot off the gas. I’m a passionate person and that was not an option. But as an engineer, I tried some experiments and saw firsthand that when I tried the practices that I chose — sleep rituals and meditation — my ability to be present, inspire, and challenge my team to new levels improved visibly. The best part is it’s not a secret. I talk to my colleagues in leadership, and we share this sense that here we can be our best selves while achieving big things together.”

In our next article, we’ll take a closer look at the many ways mental health factors into the world of work.

Read Stuck in the middle: What is lost with a workforce that isn't ill but isn't well for an introduction to the series.

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Published March 11, 2021

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