Learned Helplessness and How to Deal with It at Work

May 6, 2020 Mahevash Shaikh

Do you know what learned helplessness is? Well, have you ever felt that no matter how hard you try to achieve a goal, the outcome is totally out of your hands because, in the past, your efforts to do the same proved to be futile? Does this feeling make you feel stuck and powerless, and does it cause you to stop trying in the first place? If your answer is yes, you probably have a case of learned helplessness.

The American Psychological Association defines learned helplessness as:1

". . . a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available. Essentially, individuals are said to learn that they lack behavioral control over environmental events, which, in turn, undermines the motivation to make changes or attempt to alter situations."

Learned Helplessness Is Dangerous

Learned helplessness affects an individual's working life as much as his or her personal life. And now that many of us are forced to work from home in the middle of a pandemic, I am sure a lot of us are experiencing learned helplessness to some degree.

I am personally experiencing it too – and it has worsened my depression. Earlier today, I was actively suicidal and actually harmed myself, something I haven't done for more than a year. After a tearful phone call with my sister and a long nap, I decided that I have to feel somewhat in control of my life in order to avoid suicidal ideation.

Even though I am cooped up at home and have lost most of my clients, I need to figure out ways to take back my decision-making power. What with millions of people falling sick and losing their jobs or taking massive pay cuts, it is now more important than ever to unlearn helplessness. Even if it doesn't cause depression, it certainly increases stress levels. Plus, nobody enjoys feeling trapped and powerless. 

Dealing with Learned Helplessness At Work 

First off, please know that even if you are not on the hunt for employment in this increasingly tough job market, you are not ungrateful if you are feeling stuck in your current role. With that out of the way, let's take a look at what you can do to empower yourself in this "new normal."

  1. Prioritize comfort -- There's always that one place in our homes where we feel most comfortable. Work from there. Also, wear clothes that you want to wear. The experts might state that it's best to wear formal clothes, but honestly, people like me and Vanessa Van Edwards2 endorse working in your pajamas.
  2. Talk to your team -- What aspect of work is bothering you? For example, is your manager giving you more work than you can handle because you are single and your coworkers are married with kids? I know quite a few singletons who vocalized this kind of unfair treatment and their colleagues had to step up and do their own work. 
  3. Focus on the positives -- With even homebodies like me being tired of quarantine, it's hard to imagine the plight of regular office goers. But since this is the way things are going to be for an indefinite period of time, it's important to be grateful for the good amidst the bad. Think about it: isn't it good to not have a long commute to and fro from work? Who misses X number of unnecessary meetings? 
  4. Be realistic and avoid comparison -- Alter your expectations of productivity. Be kind to yourself when you find yourself unable to work as efficiently as you used to pre-quarantine. Most importantly, avoid people who can't stop humblebragging about how they are busy upskilling, how much their productivity has multiplied, and so on. They are in the minority and honestly, it doesn't matter because you are doing the best you can. Be mindful so you can look within, deal with quarantine fatigue, and learn to appreciate your own efforts.  


  1. American Psychological Association (APA), APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed May 6, 2020.
  2. Van Edwards, V., "How to Work from Home Successfully in 7 Steps." Science of People, Accessed May 6, 2020.

APA Reference
Shaikh, M. (2020, May 6). Learned Helplessness and How to Deal with It at Work, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 18 from

Author: Mahevash Shaikh

Mahevash Shaikh is a millennial blogger, author, and poet who writes about mental health, culture, and society. She lives to question convention and redefine normal. You can find her at her blog and on Instagram and Facebook.

May, 6 2020 at 10:59 am

Relate to this so much as a fellow depressed person. Thanks for sharing your story. I hope you feel better soon.

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