Learned helplessness: today’s workforce malaise

Increasing numbers of employees feel they have no control over their circumstances, affecting their performance and engagement at work. Pat Ashworth explains how businesses can help reverse it

You may not need to look far in workplaces today to see employees who have become passive, resigned to their situation and who no longer make an effort to change or improve their situation. 

This concept has a name – learned helplessness – and it was first coined by American psychologist Martin Seligman in 1967. It refers to a state of mind in which an individual comes to believe that they have little or no control over their circumstances after experiencing repeated and uncontrollable adversity or failure. 

Given the cost of living crisis, record levels of sickness absence and the current challenges in the labour market leading to increased workloads, it’s no surprise that many organisations are witnessing this reality in the workplace today. 

People leaders and L&D specialists need to address the issue head on and develop strategies that help to reduce overwhelm and build much needed resilience within the workforce.

Ignoring it is not an option

Recognising and addressing this problem is not only a moral responsibility but also crucial for creating a supportive and healthy work environment. Learned helplessness can significantly reduce employee engagement and productivity. When employees feel they have no control over their work or circumstances, they are more likely to become disengaged, leading to decreased performance and motivation.

This can also cause issues for other employees who witness their colleagues doing less and being demotivated. If these issues are not addressed, division and resentment can build, eroding culture and increasing the likelihood of widescale employee disengagement. 

It's not just employee performance that can be impacted by instances of learned helplessness – workers who perceive no hope of improvement or growth within the organisation are more likely to seek opportunities elsewhere, leading to higher turnover too.

Developing people-first engagement strategies and empowering employees with opportunities for upskilling and progression will help counteract the issue. When employees feel they are appreciated and are given the learning tools and opportunities to influence their circumstances, they are less likely to succumb to feelings of helplessness.

Addressing the root cause

Awareness of learned helplessness is vital because it enables business and people leaders to focus on the things within their organisation that need to be addressed to create a workplace environment that promotes employee wellbeing, engagement and productivity. 

Setting an example from the top down requires businesses to adequately recruit, train and develop people leaders with the skills to engage their teams. Strong leadership motivates and empowers teams, addressing the root cause of disengagement.

Five steps to reducing the risk of learned helplessness

  1. Empower managers to build closer emotional connections with their direct reports

Giving managers adequate training to build strong relationships with their direct reports, built on trust, will enable managers to spot the signs of disengagement and act on them early. Compassionate leadership is vital in building loyal and productive workforces, so manager training is the first line of defence against the issue of learned helplessness.

  1. Set clear and measurable objectives 

Clearly defining expectations and setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) objectives means employees understand their responsibilities and the contribution they are making to the business. This also enables poor performance to be addressed quickly, keeping everyone accountable for doing their best work. 

Regularly providing constructive feedback and recognising staff contributions and accomplishments is key to improving employee experiences and motivation. But being open and direct about underperformance is equally important to avoid issues escalating into problems. 

  1. Reduce the fear of failure

Fear of failure is natural but, to turn the tide on increasing instances of learned helplessness in the workplace, positively managing failure and empowering employees to take measured risks is crucial for building resilience. No matter what roles we do, it’s likely that we will face failure many times within our careers, so building environments that support people when they fail and encourage continuous improvement is important.    

  1. Offer mental health support

Employees are under ever increasing pressure, so providing the right mental health resources and support programmes is essential to reduce instances of overwhelm that can be a cause of learned helplessness. Investment in mental health first aider training in the workplace is an outward indication to employees that you value their mental wellbeing.  

  1. Proactively address poor culture

Whether it’s bullying or a lack of inclusion and equality, proactively addressing issues that impact employee experiences is vital. EDI initiatives are an important step in improving employee engagement and providing a psychologically safe workplace environment where people can thrive.  

Listening to employees’ perspectives and experiences and acting on issues will help to create a stronger sense of connection between employees and the business. Not only will this create a more open culture, but it ensures employees can trust that their concerns and worries are being heard and addressed, helping to reduce the likelihood of feelings of helplessness. 

Leaders cannot ignore the impact of employee wellbeing on performance and so need to take an employee-centric approach to their engagement, inclusion and wellbeing strategies. Focusing on employee experiences ultimately contributes to the long-term success and sustainability of the business.

Pat Ashworth is director of learning solutions at AdviserPlus