At a glance
A junior staff member fails to report bullying from a senior colleague, enduring the harassment in silence instead.
A manager perpetuates a culture of overwork, believing that work–life balance is impossible and that long hours are just part of the job. An inefficient process remains in place despite employee frustration because “that’s how we do things around here”.
These scenarios are examples of learned helplessness, a concept first described by psychologist Dr Martin Seligman and eurologist Dr Steven F. Maier in the 1960s.
In the workplace, learned helplessness can develop in employees exposed to constant negative stimuli beyond their control, such as chronic toxic behaviour, high-pressure work environments and unrealistic expectations.
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Situations that prompt learned helplessness can cause individuals to feel frustrated and ineffectual. They may feel plagued by low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. Problems appear insurmountable, and efforts to improve a situation feel futile.
Signs of learned helplessness can be difficult to spot. According to workplace expert Michelle Gibbings, they may include constant negativity and hopelessness or a sense of “being stuck”.
Listen to the language that is used, says Gibbings. Take note if a colleague is “always feeling defeated, deflated, dejected and has a sense there is no way out and no path forward”. These can be warning signs that something in the environment is not working for them.
In this mental state, it can be difficult for people to problem-solve, and their level of resilience in adversity may suffer.
“Similarly, if you have a team that is collectively experiencing learned helplessness, they’re going to be stuck,” Gibbings says.
“Their ability to get work done effectively and efficiently and engender change will be compromised.”
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Organisational cost of learned helplessness
Learned helplessness can have costly implications for organisations, leading to reduced performance and lower levels of engagement. It can also stifle innovation and creativity.
Dr Robyn Johns, associate dean and associate professor at UTS Business School, explains, “At an individual level, it can lead to increased levels of stress and people burning out. What can then happen is, as an organisation, you end up with people becoming disengaged.”
This can be a mindset that develops gradually. “You get worn down over time,” Gibbings adds.
In a toxic environment, people may feel there is no point raising their hand or finding a better way to do things.
“It feels like the negative consequences of putting an idea forward outweigh any potential benefit,” Gibbings says.
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How to seek help
Gibbings recommends seeking professional help from a psychologist or counsellor, particularly in cases complicated by exposure to trauma.
Learned helplessness may present with more severity in individuals who have experienced childhood trauma, Gibbings says. In some people, a toxic work environment may cause “all these issues from childhood to resurface”.
“It’s helpful to have objective feedback from someone you know is in your corner, who can work through what’s led you to feel like this.”
Take back control
The flipside of learned helplessness is a concept Seligman labelled “learned optimism”, which involves challenging and reframing negative thoughts.
Gibbings finds journalling – an activity recommended by Seligman – helpful in identifying negative patterns of thinking and behaviour and offering a reset.
Another tool is effective goal setting. The SMART approach – an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely – may help revive motivation through developing clearly defined, achievable goals.
Reintroducing a sense of control into professional life can also help counter feelings of helplessness or inaction.
According to Robert Karasek’s influential “job demand–control model”, a sense of control or autonomy over one’s work protects against stress and burnout.
Gibbings often sets her coaching clients an exercise developed by Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The exercise asks individuals to look at a situation and identify what they can control or influence – and what they cannot.
“We spend a lot of time worrying about things we can’t control,” says Gibbings.
“By doing this exercise, it helps people focus on what they can control in a situation. Typically, that is how we’re responding – the emotion we’re bringing and how we’re interpreting what’s happened.”