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Feeling hopeless, bored or flattened by work? You might be suffering from languishing

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Are you languishing at work? Shutterstock

Have you ever been at work with mounting deadlines looming, your to-do list lengthening to the size of a small tower block, and you are… staring into space? You should be feverishly active and yet, in the face of all-consuming stress and the creeping sense that there is more to accomplish than there are hours in the day, you have tumbled into a crippling inertia. What begins to seep in is a low, weighted sensation that it would be tempting to ascribe to depression, or the smoking embers of your professional burn out. What it probably is, however, is languishing.

What is languishing?

"In the US, we found that upwards of 40 to 50 per cent of all visits to health care professionals for emotional reasons weren't for depression," says sociologist Dr Corey Keyes. "They were for languishing." Keyes is an expert on the phenomenon, and has written a new book, Languishing, all about it. It was the subject of The New York Times’s most-read, most-cited article of 2021. There is an appetite, it seems, for identifying this feeling of demotivation and aimlessness which seems to be particularly prevalent in our working lives.

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Courtesy of Penguin Random House

How do I know if I'm suffering from it?

"I would describe languishing as the absence of mental health," says Keyes. "It is a lack of hope and interest in life, or belief in the good things in life." To help us identify it, he outlines a few key symptoms...

1/ You feel emotionally flattened.

2/ It’s hard to muster up excitement for events and milestones on the horizon. A sense of inevitability has washed over you. Your life circumstances seem increasingly dictated by external forces.

3/ You find yourself procrastinating on tasks at work and in your personal life as a why-try-anyway attitude sets in.

4/ More and more things strike you as irrelevant, superficial, or boring.

5/ You have the constant feeling of unease that you’re missing something that will make your life feel complete again, but you can’t figure out what it is.

6/ You feel disconnected from your own community and a greater purpose or cause.

7/ Your job once gave you a sense of meaning, or at least accomplishment, but it is starting to seem pointless in the grand scheme of things.

8/ You regularly experience brain fog (for example, standing in the shower and trying to remember whether you’ve washed your hair yet).

9/ Small setbacks that you might once have weathered fairly easily leave you feeling defeated. You feel restless, even rootless.

10/ It’s hard to find the motivation to reach out to friends and family and to maintain relationships that were once important to you. You’ve been finding it more difficult to feel close to people.

If any or all of these symptoms resonate with you, you be languishing – and it may be as a result of your professional life.

What can I do about it?

"One of the most common triggers for languishing is burn out," Keyes says. "Our working lives, especially with the advent of smartphones and constant emails, have become totally consuming but, because we often have more to do than we can actually accomplish, it becomes really overwhelming and not at all satisfying."

In the face of more work than resources and more outgoing costs than incoming wages, what feels stagnant is our hope. An overarching summary of languishing would be: what’s the point anymore? Keyes recommends taking back control as a weapon against this rising sense of futility.

"It is firstly important to acknowledge that we should avoid self-blame in these situations," he stresses. "A very large part of languishing is environment-driven; a stressful workplace, an unsupportive team, it is not something innate to us. But that doesn’t mean we are helpless to do anything."

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"First, you need to employ compassion towards yourself," Keyes advises. "I think our default reaction to languishing is: I feel this way because I'm not doing a good enough job. I'm not good enough at this. I'm not efficient, I don't do things as quickly as somebody else. Sometimes that might be true, but it is never true of everyone all the time. So, go easy on yourself."

What we can do is recognise the part we play in our lives, the part we can control. Unsurprisingly, this involves the setting of boundaries: for example, not answering emails outside work hours. "You have more bad habits at work than you think," says Keyes. "I have recognised this in myself, there is a lot of anxiety to stepping back and closing that inbox, but it is the right thing in the long run."

Acknowledging languishing also means talking about it and seeking out support from those around you. Don’t forget, you can hardly be alone in the feeling and, as part of our workplace, we have a duty to be as supportive to our colleagues as possible.

"There's nothing wrong with being challenged, and even sometimes overwhelmed," says Keyes. "But when we're overwhelmed in an environment that can allow us to talk about that, and be supported and learn and grow, and ask for help, it's amazing how we can function so well, during some of the most demanding situations."

How do I move from languishing to flourishing?

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Josh Shinner for Harper's Bazaar

What we are aiming for is languishing’s more upbeat cousin: flourishing. A lot of languishing derives from a feeling of having no purpose, often as a result of a job we no longer feel connected to, or because whatever we do has consumed so much of our time, that we struggle to find purpose beyond it. As Keyes says: "Work was not meant to be our only saviour when it comes to our purpose in life."

"A lot of what I hear from people who are languishing is that they lack purpose," he continues. "But sometimes that can be as simple as not allowing work to have outsize importance in your life, stepping back and wondering what you can get from the rest of your life that has meaning. I like most parts of my personality, and I have warm, trusting relationships. These are such essential components of my life."

Flourishing in life means enjoying it, participating in it and feeling more connected to it. To achieve this, Keyes believes we should check in with ourselves and identify what we would like more of in order to achieve that. Chief among that is connection with others, ensuring that you feel less alone, setting boundaries to carve out more time for yourself and, crucially, not being so hard on yourself.

Keyes also hopes that more and more workplaces will start identifying and thus, guarding against, languishing. "A flourishing workplace is a successful one," he says. "I hope we start understanding that."

‘Languishing’ by Dr Corey Keyes (£20, Transworld) is out now.

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