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Reducing the Feeling of "Learned Helplessness" in the Workplace


There are so many different components that can result in a negative mindset with regard to a working environment. Whether you are an employer who's discovered discrimination in the workplace or you are someone who has endured repeated bouts of aggressive stimuli beyond your control, these can result in what's called "learned helplessness." This is a psychological phenomenon where people come to believe they have little to no control over their circumstances, meaning they feel helpless and motivated to take action. 

We've all encountered people in our lives who feel there's nothing they can do, and have that “why bother?” attitude. There are a number of factors that contribute to this which tend to involve natural disasters and types of abuse, but in the workplace, being exposed to repeated stresses can invariably impact our well-being. Therefore, what do we need to do to reduce this feeling?

Focus on Goals and the Feeling of Control

We can always focus on uncontrollable factors, and this means that we don't develop the resilience, optimism, and gratitude that form the concept of positive psychology. Finding happiness through practices like gratitude and the things that are good for the soul can condition us over time to understand that the concept of control is something that we can exert. 

We need to concentrate on achievable goals, which is where something like the SMART acronym becomes very crucial. The SMART criteria (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) are very effective because it doesn't just help us create a structure for dealing with learned helplessness, but because an objective under these five criteria provides an equal helping of motivation and achievement.

Unlearn Learned Helplessness

Our psychological makeup is not fixed, but it is something that we have to remember as a form of conditioning. We all remember that learned helplessness is our form of self-preservation. Trying to unlearn this is about taking proactive steps to regain that sense of control and change the mindset. We've already talked about setting SMART goals, but we also need to reflect on experiences that may have contributed to this feeling of learned helplessness and recognizing the negative beliefs that keep us stuck. It can be very frustrating when we feel we want to break out of a pattern in a working environment, but we are surrounded by people who exhibit this learned helplessness. 

We can't help but become enveloped by the situation. In a working environment, the workload is one common cause of feeling like you have no control and therefore figuring out how to take proactive steps to address these things, for example, automating tasks or changing your work environment, can help you to have a greater appreciation of the work. Sometimes it is the job itself that has a negative effect on our well-being, perhaps you've been doing the job for a long time, or you have employers who refuse to budge when it comes to helping you to do your job better. If you are experiencing the latter, you need to ask yourself if you truly believe you will ever change the environment. If not, it might be time to look for a new career.

Communicating Your Needs

If you are in a working environment where you feel you cannot communicate your emotions, you may wish to consider the following strategies:

  • Approaching a line manager or manager with honesty and openness, establishing open communication about the challenges relating to how you feel.
  • Discussing the impact of it on your work performance, which is crucial because if we go to a line manager talking about our specific needs without acknowledging the impact on the business, there could be a chance that it falls on deaf ears. When we feel in crisis, we can easily become overwhelmed, which means that we struggle to communicate ourselves effectively but also focus on our needs because they've gone unvalidated for so long. 
  • Expressing the need for support to address these issues in a workplace environment by sharing specific instances where you have struggled due to external factors beyond your control in the workplace means that you are highlighting it from their perspective. 

It can be very frustrating to even consider that our feelings are not being met, but we must remember to take a Trojan horse approach if we are working in an incredibly toxic culture or are working with people who don't understand what we need. Through the prism of reframing it to benefit them, you can also help yourself in the process. Identifying potential strategies to overcome learned helplessness like setting clear objectives or professional assistance can give you the tools you need to thrive.

Find Where You Belong

You may love your job, and for many people when they love what they do, this can counteract some of the negative aspects of workplace culture or the other members of staff. If you feel a sense of learned helplessness, the ability to develop your resilience can help tolerate some of this, but there are so many online platforms offering mental health resources as well as professional therapy or counseling in addition to workplace training programs that focus on resilience building and emotional well-being. But if you are unable to make seismic changes in your attitude towards your working environment, it might be down to the fact that you're not thriving where you are, and it's also worth asking if you ever did. 

When you encounter an environment that makes you feel like you belong, you will know in your gut. So many of us feel that we need to get a job and that if you are someone who is perennially changing careers, there will come a time when you snap and feel like you're not able to thrive in an environment, and this is because you don't feel like you belong there. 

Understanding your core values and the things that actually make you want to get up and go to work in the morning are spoken about widely and if you don't feel like there is any control over where you are, understanding what makes you belong can help to give you a far better sense of meaningfulness.

Learned helplessness is a cloud many people easily fall under, but there are many techniques to reduce this feeling.

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