Work stress: Five ways to stay inspired when you're languishing

19 December 2022 dot 6-minute read
Feature Healthy Mind Work stress Work Well
Manage work stress by finding ways to connect with people at the office. (Credit: Getty Images)
Despite the semblance of normalcy, many people in the workforce still feel the pandemic's toll on their mental health. A global report by Gallup shows work stress reached an all-time high in 2021, with almost half of the world's employees saying they "experienced a lot of daily stress in the previous day".
In a New York Times article from the same year, the experience even took on a name: "languishing". Coined by sociologist Corey Keys, languishing on the job is marked by a prevailing sense of indifference, lack of enthusiasm and absence of wellbeing. This, in turn, can exacerbate work stress.
The article's author and organisational psychologist Adam Grant writes, "Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus and triples the odds that you'll cut back on work."
While it is not a mental health disorder, the state of apathy brought about by languishing can affect your mental wellness, which affects your ability to deal with work stressors. Chronic stress left unchecked can lead to occupational burnout. As a result, you feel exhausted and experience negative emotions like anger and sadness.

How to cope with work stress

You may not have much control over workplace stressors like long hours, heavy workloads and tight deadlines. But studies show you can combat work stress by making small, significant lifestyle shifts into "flourishing", the opposite state of the emptiness and stagnation experienced in languishing.
Flourishing is marked by a sense of progress, focus, flow and satisfaction. It can help manage stress through the pursuit of activities marked by the following: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
Here are five science-backed ways to help you make the shift and flourish at work.

1. Find meaning with "job crafting"

Celebrate every positive step forward with a reward especially when work is stressful. (Credit: Getty Images)
The concept of job crafting provides the opportunity to see work in a new way and make it more satisfying again.
Here are three ways to tackle job crafting, based on research by Amy Wrzesniewski, a Yale University psychologist, and Jane E. Dutton, University of Michigan professor of business administration and psychology.
  • Perform a task that is not in the scope of your job description. For example, a cook's job is to prepare delicious meals on time. However, he can exercise creativity in how he carries out this job. He can craft each dish like a piece of artwork, enhance the flavour profile and still serve the meals by the appointed time. He can even seek customer feedback, further deepening his relationship with his work.
  • Initiate relationships with people to build meaningful and helpful connections. For example, one of the subjects in Wrzesniewski and Dutton's research was a mixer at a plant for personal care products. The mixer's job required little personal interaction. Nevertheless, he started talking with the plant's engineers, whose work fascinated him. Their conversations led the mixer to create more effective procedures for onboarding a new team.
  • Change or redefine how you interpret your work and make your purpose at work more meaningful. Wrzesniewski and Dutton illustrate the example of a hospital housekeeper who sees her job as a "form of healing". She takes extra care cleaning bathroom fixtures to avoid putting patients at risk of infections or viruses.

2. Recognise progress no matter how small

Closing a deal or reaching targets at work are often lauded with an email blast or town hall. But "best in improved work performance" doesn't get as much attention. Yet evidence shows the sense of progress is the "strongest factor in daily motivation and joy" at work, according to Grant.
In an interview, AIA Malaysia Ambassador Datuk Nicol David, a former world squash champion, shares people think the result of her winning eight World Open crowns was consistency. However, she sees it differently. "What is really the secret or the key to my success is 'improvement'. And I want to improve myself every day."

3. Practise gratitude intentionally

You appreciate life more when you develop a habit of gratitude. For example, people who wrote five things they were grateful for 10 consecutive weeks felt better about life as a whole, had fewer physical symptom complaints and had more and better sleep, according to a paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology & Wellbeing.
The same journal cited another study whose participants wrote down three things that went well each day showed lower depressive symptoms six months later.
Researchers recommend writing exercises weekly if you want to develop gratitude as a habit. Not into journaling? Share your gratitude verbally with a spouse or a friend.

4. Enjoy the good in your life

Savouring enhances wellbeing, writes Tyler J. VanderWeele, the director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, in an evidence-based guide on flourishing. It's a daily practice of recognising the good in life, identifying what is good in the present situation, heightening focus and awareness of a positive experience and sharing or celebrating something good.

5. Connect and show kindness to others

Relieve work stress by volunteering. Research shows two hours a week can make people happier and live longer. (Credit: Getty Images)
Want a possible life-changing experience? Do five acts of kindness on a single day, once per week, for six weeks. A body of research shows carrying out several acts of kindness you wouldn't ordinarily do over the course of several weeks can make you less anxious and more engaged.
AIA New Zealand Ambassador Ian Jones and his family put up a food kitchen that has become a wellbeing booster for him and the community. "When we connect, we share. When we share, we get wonderful motivation out there to go forward together. And from that my mental health just blossoms."
Powering through work stress often means recognising and managing your emotional needs for connection, meaning and accomplishments. If these flourishing activities make you pause, then find ways to connect with a community. Try AIA Vitality where its network of partners and members can help you make a positive change. This wellness programme has health assessments covering nutrition, stress, sleep and exercise.
AIA Healthy Living - YouTube. 2021.  Finding Hope & Ways to Cope Through the Pandemic. [online] [Accessed on 11 August 2022]
AIA Healthy Living - YouTube.  Ian Jones on how important community can be in supporting you to achieve your own health goals. [online] [Accessed on 11 August 2022]
The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science. How to Flourish: Practical Activities Supported by Scientific Research. [online] [Accessed on 11 August 2022]
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2017. On the promotion of human flourishing. [online] [Accessed on 11 August 2022]
Journal of Positive Psychology & Wellbeing. 2020. Activities for Flourishing: An Evidence-Based Guide. [online] [Accessed on 11 August 2022]
Frontiers in Psychology. 2021. Job Crafting: A Challenge to Promote Decent Work for Vulnerable Workers. [online] [Accessed on 11 August 2022]
Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship. 2008. What is Job Crafting and Why Does It Matter? . [online] [Accessed on 11 August 2022]
Harvard Business Review. 2020.  What Job Crafting Looks Like. [online] [Accessed on 11 August 2022]
The New York Times. 2021. There's a Name for the Blah You're Feeling: It's Called Languishing. [online] [Accessed on 11 August 2022]
International Journal for Environmental Research and Public Health. 2022. There's a Name for the Blah You're Feeling: It's Called Languishing. [online] [Accessed on 6 September 2022]
Gallup. 2022. Why Leaders Must Address the Employee Wellbeing Deficit. [online] [Accessed on 6 September 2022]
American Journal of Public Health. 2011. Change in Level of Positive Mental Health as a Predictor of Future Risk of Mental Illness. [online] [Accessed on 22 September 2022]

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

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