Several months ago, I told my husband that I felt like I was in a funk. I couldn’t explain why—I love my business, I enjoy working with my clients, and I have so much to be thankful for. My three kids are healthy, I’m in the process of writing a book, and we had just returned from a great family vacation in Tennessee. Yet I couldn’t shake this feeling of blah—my usual motivation, action, and zest was replaced with melancholy and a sense of flatness. The only thing I felt like doing was drinking cappuccinos (ok, wine) and watching Hallmark movies all day (wouldn’t that be nice!?). On a serious note, I felt worried. Why was I feeling this way? What was causing my lack of energy and passion? I didn’t really feel completely depressed, just blah. I’ve had bad days before, and even bad weeks, but I had never experienced a prolonged period when I had to muster the energy to get through the day. I felt better on days when I worked with clients, but when I was working in my office, I lacked my normal drive.
Then, about a month ago, I read this article by Adam Grant in the New York Times. Adam described feeling similar to me—not jumping out of bed in the morning, and a lack of concentration and excitement.
He writes, “It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing. Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
Languishing is the opposite of flourishing—instead of thriving, you are muddling through your day. In the early days of the pandemic, most of us had to shift quickly to working differently and managing the immediate challenges in front of us—protecting our health, supervising children who were learning remotely, and adjusting to working at home with more distractions and fewer boundaries. There was a lot of mental, emotional, and physical stress, yet we did what we had to do to cope and persist. Our adrenaline kicked in, and we put all our energy into dealing with the crisis facing us. I remember the early days of the pandemic being difficult, yet several months later, I hit a stride and started to reap the benefits of less travel and virtual facilitation with my clients. In the beginning of 2021, I felt great, and it wasn’t until halfway through the year that I started languishing. After a challenging 2020, the talk amongst my friends and clients was that we couldn’t wait for 2021—it was sure to be a better year. But when things weren’t moving closer to normal, many of us started feeling tired of all the change and challenges we endured over the past 18 months. Our mental, physical, and emotional energy were depleting.
Perhaps you may not be languishing, but what about your employees? Have you noticed a lack of excitement, motivation, or energy among any members of your team? As leaders, one of our most important responsibilities is to caretake the culture. Employees who feel engaged bring their emotional, mental, and physical energy to work every day. Being in touch with your employees as individuals so you can support their well-being is what great leaders do.
How does one move from a state of languishing to flourishing? Each individual experience is different, and while there is no quick fix, there are some steps that may help you (or your employees) move closer to a state of flourishing.
Supporting employees who are languishing: If you have an employee who feels they are languishing, ask them what they specifically need right now to help their well-being. Encourage employees to use their time off when they need it to rest and rejuvenate. Encourage healthy boundaries at work like a specific end time each day, taking a break for lunch or a walk, and not checking email on weekends. If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), share the benefits with your employees—most EAPs offer webinars, articles and resources for managing stress, as well as counseling services.
Brainstorm with your team ways to alleviate the stressors that may be contributing to languishing. And ensure you are modeling good boundaries for your employees. People follow what you do, not what you say. One of my CEO friends is working to normalize boundaries in her organization by letting her staff know when she is taking her dog for a half hour walk and when she logs off work for the day so they can feel empowered to do the same.
Supporting yourself if you are languishing: Again, each person is different, and in my own case of languishing, I have learned that there is no quick fix. However, I have done some things that helped me feel unstuck in the moment and provided moments of joy, energy, and motivation. It took a couple of months for me to feel like myself again, yet these actions helped move me faster toward a sense of well-being.
- Walk in nature. Research shows that simply moving your body impacts your mental outlook. Getting your body moving, standing up, doing three jumping jacks, even stretching can change your mental state.
- Schedule quiet time. We started an hour of “quiet time” in our house on weekends. The rule is that everyone stays in their own rooms. I usually read or journal during this time, and my kids can do whatever they want (quietly) like read or play with Legos or their dolls. This has been a great way to encourage some down time during busy weekends with activities.
- Social media fast. I am not always great about this, but when I do take time away from social media, I feel a positive boost in my mood. I have begun “putting my phone to bed” in a different room (a habit I had before the pandemic, but then abandoned in the early days of the pandemic). Reading at night rather than scrolling through my phone has had a positive impact on my sleep and mood.
- Get rid of old magazines, clean out your inbox, declutter your closet, or organize your office. Simplifying your surroundings generates mental ease and calm.
- Create a goal. A few weeks ago, I started a 5K training app that gives me the structure to exercise more consistently. I feel more accomplished when I complete each week of training.
- Read uplifting books. I like to read personal development books that sustain a positive mindset, and I have friends who prefer novels because they feel more like an escape. Books are a great way to shift your mental state. A few of my recent favorites:
- The High 5 Habit by Mel Robbins
- Stillness is Key by Ryan Holiday
- Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown (her beautiful new book is about emotions and the human experience).
- Mentally review your accomplishments. Particularly on days where I feel like I haven’t done as much as I planned, I mentally go through a personal and professional accomplishments list for my day or week. Getting my COVID booster shot, completing school forms, registering for summer camp (yes, in November!), picking a Christmas tree, and even buying the chocolate advent calendars my kids ask for each year go on my list (everything counts!). Checking small things off my list makes me feel like I’m moving forward.
- Take time off. This strategy seems obvious, but often high achievers struggle with this the most. I’ve worked with many clients who got caught up in the cycle of doing at the expense of their being. Although I take a lot of vacation time off during the year, I rarely take a random day or half day off work because I always feel like there is something to do. I was working on several high-focus projects this week and needed a mental break, so yesterday I decided to go to the movies (on a Wednesday!) by myself (I saw House of Gucci—very good). Sometimes a few hours off can provide the mental break you need to feel reenergized about your work and life.
- There’s a lot of research proving the benefits of a gratitude practice. What I find most meaningful is focusing on specific moments like my youngest daughter’s carefree laugh (the best), reading with my children by the Christmas tree, or watching my oldest daughter’s joy as she made dinner by herself one night.
As leaders and professionals, we often focus on tasks, projects, and deadlines—the “doing” part of business. The best leaders take a holistic approach to employee well-being and purposefully connect with them as human beings—understanding their individual circumstances, challenges, and successes and supporting them through these experiences.
If you are languishing right now, or have this past year, you are not alone. And if you haven’t felt a sense of languishing, it’s possible that some of your employees have. Take time to check in on them and support them through their unique human experience.