Many workers have experienced a decline in mental health since the pandemic began, and for Australia’s 1.5 million retail workers, it’s been an especially bumpy ride. The ongoing fear of Covid-19 transmission and increase in customer aggression and abuse has seen a dramatic rise in workplace safety issues and has created mental health challenges for the country’s second-largest workforce.
Last year, retail workers reported a 400 per cent rise in customer aggression and abuse, according to a report from the National Retail Association (NRA). With lockdown measures in place across most of the country, Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci recently called for calm by publicly asking for kindness for staff working on the “front line” in stores or
A snapshot of mental health and wellbeing in the Australian retail workforce commissioned by SuperFriend shows retail jobs have become increasingly stressful. It reported that 2 in 3 retail workers had experienced a mental health condition, the second-highest proportion of any industry.
The environment is rapidly evolving with no clear end in sight. The bridge between our old normal and new normal is going to take an uncertain amount of time, and we’re not sure what’s on the other side.
For most, there have been many life changes in a short space of time and feeling a sense of restlessness, unease or an overall lack of interest in life or the things that typically bring you joy is just one part of this. Thanks to psychologist Adam Grant, we now have a name for this particular emotion: languishing.
What is languishing?
In a recent article for The New York Times, Grant drew the connection between languishing (first defined 20 years ago by sociologist Corey L.M. Keyes) and Covid-19. Grant describes languishing as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” When you’re languishing, you’re neither mentally ill nor mentally healthy; you essentially exist in this in- between state.
With the sustained threat of the pandemic for the past 18 months, we’ve been operating in a heightened state of anxiety with little reprieve. While Australia looked to be on top of the pandemic early, we’re now experiencing a resurgence of cases leading to feelings of anxiety and frustration. [At the time of writing] more than 12 million people, or 40 per cent of Australians, are currently under stay-at-home orders to limit the spread of Covid.
Most states and territories have once again reintroduced border and travel restrictions, throwing long-awaited holiday plans into chaos and despair for those unable to spend time with loved ones interstate. It’s no wonder many of us are languishing.
Languishing dulls our motivation, disrupts our ability to focus and stops us from functioning at full capacity. If left unaddressed, it can lead to more serious mental health conditions. For example, research shows healthcare workers in Italy, who were languishing, were three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the wake of Covid-19. Research by Corey L. M. Keyes found that the risk of major depression in languishing adults is six times more likely than flourishing adults.
We know that if job-related stress hasn’t been successfully managed, it can lead to burnout, resulting in decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale, and increased employee turnover.
With seven in 10 professionals already suffering from burnout in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, we not only have an opportunity but an obligation to create a mentally healthy environment in the workplace.
According to research by PwC, rates of depression, anxiety, suicide and self-harm in Australian workplaces continue to rise at an alarming pace. Their report on mental health in the workplace looked at the financial cost incurred when employers don’t take action to address and manage mental health conditions in their businesses. It estimates the cost to Australian business is approximately $11 billion per year.
The case for helping your people thrive
Organisations need to implement systems and policies that support employee entitlements around mental health and wellbeing and develop a culture where psychological safety is proactively encouraged. The case for investing in mental health is not only good for society, but it’s also good for business. Australian companies can reap $2.30 for every $1
spent on workplace mental health strategies.
Covid-19 has been instrumental in opening up important conversations about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, and employers recognise that the demands on individual workers are ever-changing. It’s been encouraging to see the many changes that have come about from the challenges that businesses have faced (and continue to face)
as a result of the pandemic.
We have spoken with many leaders looking to utilise this opportunity to create change within their organisations. This group wants to place a greater focus on holistic employee wellbeing moving forward, by developing strategies that include a better balance of work-life responsibilities, an increased focus on psychological safety in the workplace, and the creation and implementation of strategies to ensure they are taking promote this from a prevention-led approach.
Strategies to deal with languishing
As Adam Grant wrote in The New York Times, wouldn’t it be refreshing if we didn’t automatically respond with “great” or “fine” when we’re asked “How are you?” Imagine if we gave honest answers and opened up a dialogue for others to do the same. One of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them. We need to recognise, label, give
voice to our emotions before we can regulate and manage them. It helps us find clarity in a disorienting time, validates our experiences, and can help de-stigmatise mental health in the workplace.
Encourage your staff to develop their mental fitness
Just like we go to the gym exercise to improve our physical wellness, we need to focus on our mental fitness to protect ourselves from languishing. We can do this by getting the basics right — eating, sleeping, exercising. Along with practising meditation and mindfulness, doing things that make us feel positive and fulfilled, and celebrating the small wins, are all essential for a sense of progress at home and work.
Create a culture of checking-in
Workers who feel supported have a more positive outlook and perform better. Research by McKinsey shows that relationships with management are the top factor in employees’ job satisfaction, which is the second most important factor in employees’ overall wellbeing. Creating an environment of psychological safety is important for supporting their wellbeing and productivity.
Develop a culture of checking-in (not checking-up) regularly to assess how your people may be feeling at this time is critical. Take the time to deeply understand the circumstances of each of your employees, listen to their concerns and address as many as you can directly, honestly and with compassion. While we have all been in the same storm, it is important to remember we have all been in different boats.
Managers directly impact employees’ day-to-day work experience through the workload assigned to individuals, the expectations they set, and the support and resources provided. They also have the opportunity to set the tone for good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. We know that to lead well, we have to be well. Leaders who model positive behaviours such as staying active, talking openly about their own mental health, and promote an environment of psychological safety can create a positive trickle-down effect in the workplace.
Make time for flow
New research shows that a state of flow (ie. being so completely absorbed in an activity we enjoy we lose track of time) may be a helpful tool to dealing with the negative impacts of Covid-19. A study of more than 5,000 people who were quarantined in China during the early months of the pandemic found that those who experienced flow felt less lonely and more positive during lockdown. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the concept of mental “flow” to refer to stretches of time when we’re entirely focused on an activity for its own sake. Flow isn’t only reserved for hobbies, it’s also achievable at work or anytime we feel like we’re “in the zone”.
With stay-at-home orders in place, we’re finding it harder to achieve our flow. Constant interruptions and distractions from sharing our workspaces at home with partners and kids mean we’re not able to tick off as much on our to-do lists. Creating space for flow can be challenging, but when we focus on our wellbeing, we can help others more effectively. Some tips for prioritising flow include; blocking out time in your calendar around ‘flow time’ and encouraging others to do the same, making the boundaries visible (closed door/open door), and to do your activity mindfully. Switch off external distractions as much as possible.
Ensure staff people take breaks
This may sound counterintuitive, but regular breaks help with monotony, fatigue and also improve our focus when we are back ‘on’. Working within award frameworks, it may be beneficial to offer more frequent smaller breaks given staff are dealing with extreme external stressors at this time. Outside of regular breaks, many people aren’t taking longer periods of annual leave, which is leading to burnout and fatigue. Disconnecting with work and absorbing ourselves in things that give us joy is an antidote to languishing.
At this time, you may not have all the answers, but being informed is crucial. Organisations have a number of legal responsibilities when it comes to creating a mentally healthy workplace. Learn about the factors that could contribute to unhealthy work practices and how to address them in your organisation. Leaders who recognise the signs of distress, anxiety and depression or family and domestic violence are more equipped to respond quickly with support. It’s also important to understand the resources available and actively encourage others to use them, including confidential employee assistance programs, access to psychological help, HR support, and other wellbeing programs.
The statistics are unclear on how many of us may be experiencing languishing at present, though Adam Grant’s article identified languishing as the dominant emotion of 2021. Languishing affects every aspect of our lives, not just when we’re at home or work. Given we spend a large portion of our lives at work, leaders have the opportunity to help languishing employees by establishing a supportive and mentally healthy workplace. Wouldn’t it be great to look back in 10 years and know the support systems we put in place now not only protected our own mental health but allowed the people around us to thrive, too?