The effects of languishing on employee motivation and engagement

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Jun 17, 2021
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You have asked your employees or co-workers several times how they are, and they respond with, “I’m fine. As good as I can be at this time.”

What is Languishing?

Although we all want to move on from 2020, we cannot ignore the fact that COVID-19 has had a significant effect on our well-being. Given that we had to face a new reality and adapt in just a few days, it is no surprise that the pandemic affected us all in various ways.

In the workplace we are already familiar with phrases such as “lack of stress management”, “anxiety”, and “burnout”. However, a new term has recently been used to describe the emotional effects of the pandemic: languishing. And it is already being labelled as the dominant emotion of 2021.

Languishing refers to a sense of stagnation. Many describe it as a feeling of disengagement, the inability to focus, and a lack of normal drive. It may manifest in decreased motivation where employees are doing the bare minimum to get by, without worrying too much about proving themselves or delivering exceptional work. This could result in employees not functioning at their full capacity or not performing according to their normal standard. Organisations may, therefore, find that even their usual top performers are unable to produce the same level of quality work.

With the commencement of the lockdown in 2020, many individuals assumed a mindset of surviving and getting through it.  As most people thought that the pandemic would only last a few months, it seemed reasonable to not worry too much about normal day to day matters, as the most important thing was to stay healthy and safe.

However, given that we are still in the midst of the pandemic, facing the possibility of a third wave, it seems as if this mindset spilled over into 2021, where employees are just trying to go through the motions until all of this is over. Nevertheless, as a society we must find ways to move forward.

It is therefore important for organisations, managers, and individuals to understand the emotional effects of the pandemic, since failing to correctly address it could have determinantal effects on long-term engagement, morale, productivity, and the success of the business.

So how do we move forward?

Many describe languishing as having a lack of meaning or purpose in the workplace. Studies have found that one way in which meaning is derived is through the provision of care. Motivation and engagement at work are directly linked to caring and feeling cared for. However, after a year of mostly seeing our co-workers via screens or above masks, it can be quite difficult to experience a sense of care.

Studies have shown that employees are 53% more likely to stay with their organisation for more than 3 years and 51% more likely to feel personally engaged in their work if they experience a sense of care. They are also 40% less likely to experience burnout.

To create a sense of care requires action from both the employer and employees, and when done right it can lead to an increase in personal and business results.

Strategies to create a culture of care

Training leaders to show compassion

Organisations should encourage their leaders to model care through everyday actions (check-ins, positive feedback, professional development opportunities, etc.). Leaders should also be equipped to communicate with compassion and empathy. This will show employees that care is valued and practiced, encouraging them to also act with care toward themselves and others.

TIP: Ensure that leaders truly understand the long-term effects of languishing if not addressed, by explaining it to them in clear and measurable outcomes. This should alter their perception in terms of employee well-being, viewing it as a critical priority for the long-term success of the organisation.

Creating peer support systems

Peer support is also an important factor in motivation and engagement. Creating support networks and connecting employees across business groups can give them a way to maintain motivation in the workplace.

TIP: Schedule peer check-in meetings without the presence of management, where employees can share their current challenges and coping mechanisms to help each other move forward and manage their well-being.

Raising Awareness

Often employees cannot explain why they are feeling demotivated or disengaged. It is therefore important to raise awareness in terms of the emotional effects of COVID-19. Making individuals aware of what they are going through can be the first step in equipping them to manage and improve their mental health and well-being. Organisations should encourage employees to name their emotions, so that they can understand that what they are going through is normal.

TIP: Facilitate team meetings where individuals can share how they understand languishing and how they have experienced it.

Allowing time for uninterrupted work

Given the reality of many employees working from home, organisations are so focused on keeping employees engaged, they may overcompensate with scheduling unnecessary meetings which could in effect demotivate employees. Experts on languishing attribute the feeling to a lack of ‘workflow’. Organisations should allow employees uninterrupted days so that they can get back into their ‘flow’, without too many distractions.

TIP: Encourage your team to block out an entire day on their calendar per week to focus on their work. You could also allow them to block out a “no meeting” section on their calendar during a time in the day that they feel they are most productive.

Setting achievable goals

In the world of psychology, experts refer to the term self-efficacy to describe a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a particular situation. Increased self-efficacy leads to increased success and is directly linked to whether the individual believes they can achieve an outcome or goal. Therefore, setting too high or unachievable goals could demotivate employees.

To improve employees’ motivation and engagement, it could be useful to set small and achievable goals to build up their confidence and self-efficacy, so that they can get back into their ‘flow’ by experiencing a sense of accomplishment.

TIP: Goal-setting could also be linked to well-being. Managers can encourage their team to set personal goals, such as meditating for 10 minutes each day or going for a 15-minute walk during lunch breaks. This can motivate them to set out time to actively improve their well-being.

Respecting time off

Maintaining a work-life balance is a key part of employee well-being. Organisations should therefore respect employees’ time off and not contact them after hours or over weekends, to help employees maintain a work-life balance.

TIP: It important for management to set a clear example by also logging off after work and not contacting employees after working hours.

Final thoughts

As organisations, managers and individuals, we need to show compassion to ourselves and to others, given the major effects of COVID-19. However, it is now time to actively implement strategies to manage our own well-being as well as the well-being of others to ensure that we can move forward in a positive and productive manner.

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