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April 15, 2021

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Addressing ‘learned helplessness’ in the workplace

Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health, discusses how to support employees dealing with feelings of negativity and helplessness in the workplace and how to help them to excel while pandemic restrictions remain.

Brendan Street

Studies show negativity in the workplace has increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Excessive workloads, anxiety about the future and some facing lack of challenges in their work are reasons employees are struggling more than ever.

It can sometimes feel impossible to escape f rom unhelpful thinking right now.

What is ‘learned helplessness’?

Learned helplessness is when individuals have been conditioned to expect suffering, discomfort or pain without a way to escape it.

As a result, when people believe they have no control over what happens to them, they begin to think, feel, and act as if they are helpless.

Its role during a global pandemic

Learned helplessness is a growing trend in the modern workplace, with employees remaining stuck in the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic.

A study found that 58% of employees reported an inability to concentrate at work during this time. As the mind drifts, it can easily get trapped into unhelpful, recurring thought patterns, especially during times of crisis.

Once this state of mind starts to take over, we see positivity turns into pessimism, frustration, lack of effort and even ‘passivity’, when employees lose the will to react to or try to change a growing negative outlook.

Learned helplessness can have a huge impact on employee mental health. People who experience it are more likely to experience increased stress levels, lack of interest in self-care, less motivation and symptoms of depression.

Be trained for ‘triggers’

While managers cannot be expected to be medical experts – diagnosing colleagues and providing medical interventions – they do have a responsibility to the notice the signs of learned helplessness and signpost those towards relevant support.

There are certain signs or emotional ‘signatures’ employers can look out for, if they think learned helplessness is something an employee may be experiencing.

Individuals may find it difficult to maintain their usual levels of work performance. Not only do symptoms of chronic stress make productivity a struggle but it can also impact concentration and motivation.

This may become obvious in an individual’s behaviour, for example, if they regularly log on late or there is a noticeable dip in their work standards.

However, it may be more subtle, like an individual becoming quieter and more reserved, taking a negative attitude towards work or reducing communication with colleagues and in meetings.

Workplace support

Fortunately, research shows we can protect ourselves from the damaging toxicity of learned helplessness by taking steps to ensure we are “thriving.”

Encouraging staff to examine their emotions and share how they are feeling at work is key. The skill of noticing and recognising our thoughts and feelings should not be underestimated.

Unfortunately, many of the sources of community that provide support in times of stress are no longer easily accessible.

The natural result of this is a growing sense of isolation from the people who can best dispel our fears and anxieties. However, meaningful connections can still occur even with social distancing measures in place.

Encourage regular communication among employees. Set up team chats on an informal messaging platform and let employees know it’s okay to send the occasional personal message to friends within the team.

Employers should aim to support and facilitate a workplace culture where conversations about personal difficulties are both welcomed and expected.

Nuffield Health research suggests that one of the main barriers to seeking support is the current ‘illness-led’ approach to personal issues and mental health. Many people often feel as though the distress they are experiencing is not severe enough to be considered ‘real’ or worthy of support.

Discussing distressing emotions and poor mental health at work using non-illness led language is key to encouraging everyday conversations.

Our most recent work is aimed at helping businesses to encourage empowering conversations around such topics, so more people access support, earlier.

It is important employees know they can talk about their difficulties, especially those occurring out of the office. Consider supporting employees with remote psychological support via teleconference or telephone psychotherapy, giving them access to a specialist who can help them explore unhelpful thinking patterns.

The most common treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps people overcome these types of challenges by changing how they think and act.

Employees will receive support and encouragement from a medical professional, explore the origins of learned helplessness and develop ways and coping mechanisms to deal with these emotions.

If possible, try partnering with workplace wellbeing experts to offer talks from professional health practitioners, sharing advice on how to build resilience or adapt habits to encourage ongoing self-care like mindfulness or relaxation techniques.

These can either be done as informal chats or as part of larger seminars, which can work in a virtual setting too.

Not in recent years has the nation collectively experienced the challenges to mental wellbeing brought about by the current pandemic. If we act now, and act together, we can use this shared experience of distress to bring about change.

Work-related stress

Listen to latest episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, where Peter Kelly, Senior Psychologist for the Health and Safety Executive, talks about work-related stress and Inspector Phil Spencer, Blue Light Programme Co-ordinator at Cleveland Police, discusses the stress of working on the frontline during the pandemic.

Subscribe to discover the latest issues facing the health and safety profession, and stay on-top of the developments affecting your role, from working at height, lone working and common workplace hazards, to safety culture, behaviours, occupational health and mental health and wellbeing.

Connect 2021 – Workplace Wellbeing Conference

As part of our online event Connect 2021, running from 1-30 June, the Workplace Wellbeing Conference will feature three, full days of in-depth presentations, panels & interviews with leading experts in workplace wellbeing. The conference is designed for anyone involved in wellbeing initiatives within their organisation as well as anyone looking to support their own wellbeing or the wellbeing of others.

Speakers include former No. 10 director of communications and strategy Alastair Campbell; astronaut Major Tim Peake; Mind CEO Paul Farmer; Olympic gold medallist Amy Williams; award-winning campaigner Tom Dunning; HSE Principal Human Factors Specialist Phoebe Smith; and many more.

Tickets to the conference are £120 + VAT, with 20% of the ticket price  donated to conference charity partner, Mind.

The conference takes place from 1-3 June 2021.

Alastair Campbell

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Mike Kelly
Mike Kelly
1 year ago

There doesn’t appear to be much thought given to the assistance that trade union HS reps can provide to the workforce to overcome those aspects which management have neglected to consider, which are not in the least illness or medical related– eg overwork or boredom. These have long existed and are well known as important factors in causing workplace stress.
I’m not sure that ‘learned helplessness’ as a term actually helps!

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
1 year ago

There are other names but, not sure whether any more acceptable, presenteeism and Mental Health or repetitive stress injuries due to over-exposure to sub-optimally calibrated DSE already affecting 58% plus manifesting in average 20% loss in productivity resulting in many more “working to live” in the 21st Century the age of digital separation anxiety versus ‘living to work’ eroded by progressive and insidious loss of work/life balance. “Wellbeing” or sustaining more optimal “basic given minimum working condition” would support the human production-line that seams not to benefit from the same routine and planned maintenance other work equipment or even just… Read more »