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Why are We Languishing?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
August 8, 2021

It has been about 18 months since the staff in my office vacated the space we are in, and it will be about another three months before they return in stages. There have been significant changes in the way we do business. However, one thing that has remained consistent throughout all of this is our need for human connection; and the hard truth that we are even more isolated than before. Connection with our peers, whether socially or professionally, has transitioned into a virtual platform, and has for many created a scenario where we are left to languish. It can be difficult to identify and even harder to manage because there are no clear markers to indicate a person is languishing even though it is evident that something is wrong. It is not quite the same as feeling down or depressed, but simply put you might feel “blah” about most everything happening. One very important lesson I have learned as a manager and public administrator is that we must check in regularly with our teams to ensure we are not leaving anyone behind or disconnected from the work we’ve set out to do. To languish is to feel unwell, without any particular trigger, which can make it incredibly difficult to perform at the same level as before the pandemic, and even harder to rebound once the feelings have been given a name. As we continue to learn all the casualties of the pandemic, it is important to develop our skills as leaders so that we can be the resource our staff needs to stabilize and find their path again.

According to an article from the New York Times, signs and symptoms of languishing include trouble concentrating, feeling joyless or aimless and either feeling empty or like you’re stagnant. So why is this important to consider and identify in our staff, colleagues and even our clients or constituents? It is vital that we put a name on our feelings so that we can begin to rebuild, crawl out from under the shadow of this pandemic and move on with our lives. If your staff or team was previously meeting all their targets and had quality job performance, but now they’re not, it is likely they are experiencing some level of languishing which can directly impact one’s motivation to perform well and even create a situation where staff might decrease their workload as a result. Identifying changes in performance with our teams is important because it keeps the door to communication open and can foster a stronger relationship with our staff if they feel heard and acknowledged for struggling. To be vulnerable with each other can strengthen our relationship and create a space for deeper levels of team work and bonds.

One thing that has been helpful in my work place is to help staff identify areas where they are resilient, and supporting the development of skills and tools to combat isolation, depression and other mental health conditions that are sure to follow. As a management team we facilitate conversations around mental wellness and regularly check in with our teams to ensure they are hanging in and hanging on. We share with them resources and research studies that show they’re not alone in how they’re feeling and also communicate any changes to policies and procedures that impact the way they do their work. We have learned that open lines of communication are vital in building team stability and trust among our staff, as well as buy-in as major changes begin to happen. If staff are feeling as though they are part of the process and have a voice, we will likely be more successful when the time comes to return to the office. As the pandemic continues to shift how business and life happens, it is important to decide how we show up each day. Performing our leadership duties at the highest level as public administrators is absolutely essential in this time of heightened anxiety and confusion.

As we begin to realize that we are in this pandemic for the long haul, despite our deepest desires to return to normal life, it is our responsibility as community leaders to inform the public of some tips that could help them to continue surviving this strange time in our history. Encouraging our cohorts to engage in activities that are calming and help create spaces for healing, creating small attainable goals and rebuilding our community together through shared common interests is what will lead us back toward where we want to be. We are in a unique time that calls for distinctive and out-of-the-box thinking to encourage our neighbors that this life is worth living together, and it is up to us to create the solutions we need to keep moving forward.


Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and public administrator in Washington State. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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