January 19

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Covid-19 and Learned Helplessness at Work.

Is Covid-19 Exacerbating Learned Helplessness in your organisation? In much of my leadership and culture work in organisations, one of the most paralysing effects I see is that of learned helplessness.   The term originated in early clinical experiments on animals (see Martin Seligman’s work in the late 60’s/early 70’s) and can be expressed as:

 “When humans or other animals start to understand (or believe) that they have no control over what happens to them, they begin to think, feel, and act as if they are helpless”.

In the clinical domain, it has strong links with depression and there are a range of really good CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and  positive psychology techniques to address it.

Learned Helplessness in Business

In the corporate world, I have seen it manifest in the following ways:

  • Staff members who say:

“My workplace is terrible, but what can I do – I have to pay the bills somehow”

“It doesn’t matter how good a brief/report/plan I write; my boss will always change it to suit her style”

“It doesn’t matter how often we provide the same feedback; nothing ever changes”

  • Leaders who say:

“It is impossible to get our managers to step up and lead”

“Anything we send up to the executive team gets ‘lost in the black hole’”

 “It doesn’t matter what we give them/do for them, people will always complain”

You may have heard some of this in office chatter or seen it in black and white in your engagement survey results. The common factor is a perceived lack of control and the result is stagnation. Motivation drops and productivity decreases as people “spin their wheels” and go through the motions.

Learned helplessness in organisations creates a vicious cycle. Those who feel that they are unable to succeed are unlikely to put much effort in, which decreases their chances of success, leading to even less motivation and effort.

Covid-19 and Learned Helplessness

IF Learned Helplessness is about people perceiving they are unable to control or influence their situation, the Covid-19 has just ‘upped the ante’. In a way, it ticks all 3 of the boxes of pessimistic explanatory styles associated with learned helplessness:

  1. Permanent – “this pandemic will never end – life will never return to normal”
  2. Pervasive – “I can’t travel, I can’t go out to eat or shopping safely and I might lose my job”
  3. Personal – “I’m the sort of person who’s likely to get it”

As well as impacting the mental health of your workforce (particularly those already prone to anxiety and depression), it can also make it a lot harder for businesses entering the recovery phase.

So What to do?

Research  conducted by YES Psychology & Consulting in Australian businesses during the Covid-19 crisis, indicated that the things organisations and leaders can best do to help people feel more supported, connected and engaged during this time is:

  1. Check in – ideally individually with each of your team and go beyond the “how are you going with XYZ tasks” to “how are you and your family coping at the moment; is there anything I can do”. This will also allow you to monitor for the type of learned helplessness statements described above
  2. Communicate – more often than you think you need to with updates, reassurance (where possible) and connection back to the bigger picture/vision/mission/why
  3. Role Model – calm and realistic optimism

Worried that you might be slipping into learned helplessness yourself? Try adopting some ‘learned optimism’ techniques and replacing your explanatory styles. This involves deliberately applying a more optimistic view, including a belief that you can influence some aspects of your situation:

  • Permanent – Temporary (“It’s difficult now but things will get better”)
  • Pervasive – Specific (It’s created some restrictions on some of the things I do in my life”)
  • Personal – External cause ( “I can minimise my chance of getting sick if I adopt good hygiene measures”)

If you have noticed an increase in learned helplessness at work ASK YES how we can help your workforce to develop learned optimism and resilience. We offer employee wellbeing consulting as well as wellbeing and resilience training and would love to help.


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