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Overcome learned helplessness with the power of psychological safety

Image of a group of professional men and women standing in front of white board reviewing post it notes

Learned helplessness is a painful psychosocial hazard that may not be on your radar but should be.

Psychology Today says, “Learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so.” 

It has also been defined as conditioning, where a person expects pain, suffering, and discomfort through experience, believing there is no way to escape. 

Learned helplessness can thwart psychological safety 

Recurring negative experiences due to a toxic culture, an overbearing command-and-control leader, and feelings of being constantly overwhelmed with no decision-making autonomy can wear employees down. In this state, people don’t feel safe to speak up, or they think that when they do, they get in trouble or no one listens. They start to believe they have no control over what happens to them and think, feel, and act as if they are helpless. 

When employees experience helplessness, their quality of work and workplace experience are negatively impacted. It can also damage health and well-being, contributing to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Override learned helplessness in your workplace

You can mitigate this risk by recognizing that every interaction, decision and process generates a positive charge or a negative drain on employees.

ISO 45003, Occupational health and safety management — Psychological health and safety at work — Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks is an excellent guide that can help you assess the amount of drain and charge employees experience in your workplace. Using the ISO 45003 lens, you can look at how work is organized, interpersonal interactions and the physical environment and equipment.

If the workload seems fair and manageable and provides a sense of purpose, workers will likely perceive it as favourable. They are more likely to experience positive emotions that affect brain neurochemicals that influence mood. 

Prioritize psychological safety 

Creating an environment where psychological safety is non-negotiable and rewarded will help negate learned helplessness and make it safe for employees to be themselves, contribute and raise concerns without fear of judgment, and ultimately, enhance your business outcomes. 

Get started with these steps

  • Complete a psychosocial hazard risk assessment through an intersectional lens. This can be done through online assessments like the Workplace Psychological Safety Assessment. Find out whether employees feel drained or positively charged in their workplace interactions and solicit feedback to help mitigate mental harm, injury, and illness through one-on-one discussions and  focus groups.

  • Educate leaders to help them understand how their actions can positively or negatively impact the employee experience. Help them recognize the signs of learned helplessness so they can promote help-seeking behaviours and address issues that could lead to more significant problems.

  • Promote mental fitness and educate employees on the importance of paying attention to optimism and pessimism in managing their mental health. Encourage them to use free, online, confidential optimism quick screens to get a snapshot of their outlook. 

  • Talk to employees of the importance of proactively managing their mental health and regularly remind them of the resources available to support them. 

Ignoring the risk of learned helplessness could lead to serious issues, including increased turnover, more disability claims due to mental illness, and lost productivity. Before workers can improve their situations, they must believe there is an alternative to what they are experiencing. You can start to show them that there is by listening, adapting and creating a work environment where they feel energized, valued and in control.

Get to know the author – Dr. Bill Howatt