Is Covid-19 Exacerbating Learned Helplessness in your organisation?

Is Covid-19 Exacerbating Learned Helplessness in your organisation? In much of my leadership and culture work in organisations, one of the most paralysing effects I see is that of learned helplessness.   The term originated in early clinical experiments on animals (see Martin Seligman’s work in the late 60’s/early 70’s) and can be expressed as:

 “When humans or other animals start to understand (or believe) that they have no control over what happens to them, they begin to think, feel, and act as if they are helpless”.

In the clinical domain, it has strong links with depression and there are a range of really good CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and  positive psychology techniques to address it.

Learned Helplessness in Business

In the corporate world, I have seen it manifest in the following ways:

  • Staff members who say:

“My workplace is terrible, but what can I do – I have to pay the bills somehow”

“It doesn’t matter how good a brief/report/plan I write; my boss will always change it to suit her style”

“It doesn’t matter how often we provide the same feedback; nothing ever changes”

  • Leaders who say:

“It is impossible to get our managers to step up and lead”

“Anything we send up to the executive team gets ‘lost in the black hole’”

 “It doesn’t matter what we give them/do for them, people will always complain”

You may have heard some of this in office chatter or seen it in black and white in your engagement survey results. The common factor is a perceived lack of control and the result is stagnation. Motivation drops and productivity decreases as people “spin their wheels” and go through the motions.

Learned helplessness in organisations creates a vicious cycle. Those who feel that they are unable to succeed are unlikely to put much effort in, which decreases their chances of success, leading to even less motivation and effort.

Covid-19 and Learned Helplessness

IF Learned Helplessness is about people perceiving they are unable to control or influence their situation, the Covid-19 has just ‘upped the ante’. In a way, it ticks all 3 of the boxes of pessimistic explanatory styles associated with learned helplessness:

  1. Permanent – “this pandemic will never end – life will never return to normal”
  2. Pervasive – “I can’t travel, I can’t go out to eat or shopping safely and I might lose my job”
  3. Personal – “I’m the sort of person who’s likely to get it”

As well as impacting the mental health of your workforce (particularly those already prone to anxiety and depression), it can also make it a lot harder for businesses entering the recovery phase.

So What to do?

Research  conducted by YES Psychology & Consulting in Australian businesses during the Covid-19 crisis, indicated that the things organisations and leaders can best do to help people feel more supported, connected and engaged during this time is:

  1. Check in – ideally individually with each of your team and go beyond the “how are you going with XYZ tasks” to “how are you and your family coping at the moment; is there anything I can do”. This will also allow you to monitor for the type of learned helplessness statements described above
  2. Communicate – more often than you think you need to with updates, reassurance (where possible) and connection back to the bigger picture/vision/mission/why
  3. Role Model – calm and realistic optimism

Worried that you might be slipping into learned helplessness yourself? Try adopting some ‘learned optimism’ techniques and replacing your explanatory styles. This involves deliberately applying a more optimistic view, including a belief that you can influence some aspects of your situation:

  • Permanent – Temporary (“It’s difficult now but things will get better”)
  • Pervasive – Specific (It’s created some restrictions on some of the things I do in my life”)
  • Personal – External cause ( “I can minimise my chance of getting sick if I adopt good hygiene measures”)

Want to assess your own learned optimism?  Try this free 48-item assessment put out by Stanford University:

Stanford Learned Optimism Scale


The Power of Check-in Conversations (free 8 min video)

The Power of Check-in Conversations during COVID19. Produced in conjunction with Channel 1 Creative Media, this 8-minute video provides a simple guide for leaders on checking in with employees, recognising mental health issues and responding supportively.

Just a sample of the practical tips and tools we provide during Leadership Development Programs and Coaching.

The companying tip-sheet titled “Check-in Conversations are Critical during COVID-19 Impacts” can be downloaded from our RESOURCES webpage at YES Psychology & Consulting.

Digital Masterclass: Virtual Workplace Mental Health

Virtual Workplace Mental Health: How to effectively support & manage the mental health & performance of employees while working remotely. Thank you Criterion Conferences for inviting us to present these masterclasses, commencing 12 & 19 May 2020.

Read more and register here.

COVID-19 has forced many organisations and workers to adapt quickly to the ‘new normal’ of remote working. During uncertain and disruptive times, it’s important that leaders have the knowledge but also the practical skills to support the mental health & wellbeing of their teams and to manage their own self-care.

As managers and leaders are undoubtedly overwhelmed at this time with information and advice about how to manage the wellbeing and performance of their employees, this Masterclass will cut through the noise to help you navigate this change with real skills and take- away tools you can use immediately with your people and teams.

Join expert psychologist Kash Thomson for this in- depth two-part virtual masterclass. You will gain new insights, tools and directly applicable skills to put into practice. Kash will role-model ways of managing mental health and emotionally-laden conversations and answer evolving questions from the perspective of best-practice workplace wellbeing, psychosocial risk management and psychologically-robust supportive leadership behaviours.

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Switch Off & Sleep: Share Composure Exercises with Your Staff (Week 4)

Switch Off & Sleep: Share Composure Exercises with Your Staff (Week 4). This week we’re sharing more FREE samples of composure and grounding mindfulness exercises, that you can share with your staff and practice yourself, to help switch off from the outside world and prepare for sleep.

Click the link for a 10-minute audio exercise to Switch Off to Sleep.

Go to WEEK 4 of our SAMPLES page to download or share exercises in deep breathing, settling, relaxing the body and brief (but different) mindfulness exercises. Check out the full series of exercises we’re providing to the community – given the impacts of COVID-19.

Busy minds (that worry about getting enough sleep or fixing the hassles of the day) are a common source of sleep disturbance. Sometimes the trick to switching off and falling asleep if giving ourselves permission to think about tasks and problems tomorrow, to not ‘stress’ about falling asleep, and to instead focus on settling the mind and body. Some people find instant success in this type of exercise and don’t recall the ending of the exercise. Others need practice at changing the habits of settling down towards sleep and ‘catching the sleepy wave in’. Changing sleep patterns takes time and professional help may be needed to resolve more complex factors.

POWERED BY: Psychology & Consulting – experts in leadership and wellbeing.


Reconnect to Sources of Strength & Composure: Tactical Composure Exercises (Week 3)

Reconnect to Sources of Strength & Composure: Tactical Composure Exercises (Week 3). Want a way to refocus your attention from the ‘negative stuff’ or ‘worrisome mental chatter’ towards the good and helpful things in your life?

Try this 6-minute Sample: Relax & Reconnect. (you’re one click away from composure 🙂

This exercise helps you reconnect and engage with sources of positive emotion, strength, accomplishment and support.

MORE: We’re sharing a series of samples of some of the practical, discreet and science-backed exercises from our Tactical Composure program with you.

Practice Suggestion: Build the ‘mental muscle’ of focusing your attention on the positive things by recalling the good things in your life each day for two weeks, and observe the difference.

POWERED BY: Psychology & Consulting – experts leadership and wellbeing.


5-mins to Relax & Refocus – FREE Exercises from Tactical Composure (Week 2)

5-mins to Relax & Refocus – FREE Exercises from Tactical Composure (Week 2). Need a break from the distractions and concerns of the world around you? Tactical Composure exercises can do just that. You’re just a click away from composure 🙂

Try these 5-minute Samples:

  • Relax & Refocus (an exercise to ground yourself, relax and refocus your attention on where it needs to be)
  • Grounding Mindfulness (an exercise that builds your ability to focus attention on cue and has a settling effect)
  • SNEAK PEEKSwitching-Off to Sleep (a 10-min exercise to help you switch-off, settle and fall asleep) – this is because we’re hearing that sleep-disturbance is a rising issue for people at the moment.

Practice Suggestion: Build your ability to relax and compose yourself on cue, by practicing twice a day for two weeks and observe the difference.

MORE FREE SAMPLES – try out the series of exercises we’re providing to the community – given the impacts of COVID-19.

POWERED BY: Psychology & Consulting – experts in leadership and wellbeing.


FREE Tactical Composure Exercises – Quick Calm Combo (Week 1)

FREE Tactical Composure Exercises – Quick Calm Combo (Week 1). Want a quick practical strategy for composing yourself in the heat of the moment, that you can take with you anywhere? Tactical Composure exercises can do just that, and (if practiced over time) can boost your wellbeing and focus as well as buffer against stress, anxiety and sleep disturbance. We’re sharing brief samples of some of the practical, discreet and science-backed exercises from our program with you.

Try this brief sample: 3-minute Quick Calm Combo (you’re just two clicks away from composure 🙂

Practice Suggestion: Build your ability to calm down quickly, by practicing twice a day for two weeks and observe the difference.

Visit our SAMPLES page to try the exercises we’re providing free, given the impacts of COVID-19.

TACTICAL COMPOSURE is the action of deliberately applying composure and preparation tactics in order to manage potentially stressful or demanding situations, that are likely to recur or not change quickly. It’s a practical pathway to building attention-control, resilience and wellbeing through short-term exercises. We are not saying this alone can manage the more significant and complex concerns, as they may require tailored exercises from a registered health professional. We are saying that life’s hassles do affect us, because we are human, and that we can do something to help mitigate the impact on our life, health and wellbeing.

POWERED BY: Psychology & Consulting – experts leadership and wellbeing.


Supporting Leaders & Workplaces Impacted by COVID-19

Supporting Leaders & Workplaces Impacted by COVID-19. Workforce wellbeing strategies, leadership support and consulting on ‘engaging and supporting your people during COVID-19‘ – available now (and by tele-health and videoconferencing). Contact YES Psychology & Consulting for advice on how to best support your workplace leaders and people. Support such as,

  • Advice and consulting on managing people and emotions during periods of disruption
  • Understanding and managing emotional reactions such as anxiety, stress, frustration and conflict
  • Management of wellbeing, mental health issues and performance
  • Facilitating effective leadership strategy and communications
  • Organisational, team and individual wellbeing check-ins
  • And MORE

Never before, on a mass scale, has it been paramount for leaders to show supportive leadership behaviours, WH&S obligations and organisational-preparedness. Now is the time to support leaders in their resilience and management of people – when faced with changing, ambiguous, uncertain and demanding times.

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4th Annual Mental Health Strategies for First Responders Conference in Melbourne

Chairing at the 4th Annual Mental Health Strategies for First Responders Conference in Melbourne (26-27 Feb 2020). With a focus on driving cultural change & engaging staff to normalise mental health in the workplace. Thanks to Criterion Conferences for the invitation to chair this exceptional and crucial event.

We will hear from leaders, researchers, peers and professionals from a diversity of services – highlighting the role of leadership, culture, inclusion, strategy, evidence and accessibility in workplace mental health outcomes for our first responders.

Read more:

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Looking after ourselves and others during disaster. 

Looking after ourselves and others during disaster.  Here are some tips, including self-care, staying connected, sleep and stress management, recovery planning and seeking help.


Just like every time we get on a flight and the safety presentation advises us to make sure we put our own oxygen masks on before we help others, self-care is a priority when we strive to respond during major events, especially when we try to go the extra yard in high pressure and protracted situations.


Sleep loss and fatigue have a big impact on psychological and emotional functioning, which can impact critical decision-making. While people can usually (physically) work just as hard over just as many hour, s whether they have had enough sleep or not, sleep loss impairs decision making to the same extent as blood alcohol concentrations that exceed 0.05%. So, without good sleep we start making poorer decisions that could actually increase risk to safety, particularly when people are dealing with disaster between attending their normal employment.


During disasters we can spend extended periods of time in ‘high stress’. We call this high stress because our body and brain are continually in a state of high adrenalin, similar to the Fight or Flight reactions we have when we are threatened by some potential trauma. The high stress reaction really helps us by giving us the energy to go above and beyond our normal efforts and rise to the challenge of disasters. The high stress reaction is often behind stories of when people show bravery in the face of danger or the stories of amazing endurance.

However, the stress reaction can sometimes cause us difficulties once the emergency is over:

  • Some people find it difficult to turn off their stress reaction, to sleep well, think clearly, or feel settled.
  • Others can struggle emotionally. The feelings that can drive a ‘fight or flight’ reaction often resemble anxiety or anger and these can continue Even after the challenges are over.
  • Sometimes people feel uneasy, other times people feel angry and irritable (and their families can often be aware of these feelings being expressed).
  • Some people will actually feel a loss of emotions like feeling empty or numb. Sometimes these are a result of the exhaustion of protracted periods of high stress and sometimes numbness can be a way our body protects us from high stress.


There are 2 key things we need to keep in mind to help manage our return to normality:

  1. Unusual reactions are normal. We should expect our body and brain to take some time to settle and even though this may feel uncomfortable, you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that there is something wrong with you.
  2. Develop a recovery plan. Just like affected communities, towns, and organisations do after disasters, you need to think about what you’ll do to maximise your recovery.
    • Take stock – Allow yourself time to absorb your experiences and become aware of what ongoing reactions you’re having.
    • Time out – even if you feel fine, allow yourself to rest and sleep. Sleep is not only important for clear thinking and re-energising, research shows it helps our brain process distressing information and allowing us to move on. Also, remember too much alcohol prevents good sleep.
    • Some form of relaxation or mindfulness exercises have also been shown to help reduce stress and gather clear thoughts.
    • Take time to Exercise – exercise is great for your sleep (because it makes you tired) and appetite (because you need to replace lost energy). Exercise is also great because it brings on all of the natural ’stress down’ chemicals our body uses to relax.
    • Talk to someone – social support, even if it’s talking about nothing specific, is a powerful tool for personal resilience. Staying connected to people who understand and support you can help maintain and boost your wellbeing.


People are resilient and almost always find their way successfully through their return after challenging times but it’s important that if you are concerned about anything you are experiencing and or you feel your reactions are lasting too long (usually most reactions settle within 2-4 weeks) then talk to a professional – a small amount of early strategies from an expert can prevent a long term challenge.

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