In the multitude of compensation schemes that there are, regardless of the type of assistance being received, the phenomenon of ‘learned helplessness’ is all too common. KRISTIN TINKER explains the profound impact this can have on an individual’s ability to recover from adversity.
Imagine living in a world where you believe you have no control over your destiny. Where any attempts you make to alter your life/relationships/ occupation... anything at all... are futile. Imagine going about your daily activities not realising your intentions, life purpose, or reason for being. Imagine believing that if you tried to fix a problem you have, the very act of giving it your emotional energy, will be the cause for failure. Imagine trying to live a fulfilling life like that, and recover from a mental illness at the same time. I’m not sure it is possible.
So what is learned helplessness, and how does it emerge?
In compensation schemes we often see individuals in a situation of despair where they lose hope in their situation, environment, recovery and future. These people have often had some previous attempts to “fix” their problems, quite often unsuccessfully. They often believe that they need to be “fixed” in order to feel happy, however their ability to “be fixed” is not something that they think they are able to control, given their previous unsuccessful attempts. In an attempt to ‘fix’ their current problem, they become helpless.
When an individual perceives that they have had something unwillingly removed from them - such as their physical capacity (as in the case of a physical illness/ injury) or their emotional well-being (as in mental illness /injury claims), the feeling of having such a lack of control over their body and mind launches someone into a state of helplessness where the belief of ‘my effort doesn’t make a difference’ is profound and impactful. They often have subsequent attempts to fix the ensuing problems, and if these are not successful, the downward spiral of emotions continues. The more an individual unsuccessfully tries to “fix” their problem, the more they begin to believe that they are “unfixable”.
So... How are we - whether “we” are Scheme Agents, Life Insurers, Employers, Treating Practitioners, Rehabilitation Providers, loved ones, or anyone associated with a person involved in a situation like the above, going to influence this downward spiral?
1. Plan for recovery - encourage optimism!
Our experience at Resilia, alongside the empirical evidence, has demonstrated that the projection of a rehabilitation claim can be anticipated long before someone returns to work, or alternatively, severs employment with their employer. An individual who has reasonable and realistic expectations for their recovery is much more likely to do so, rather than someone with no expectations (“I’m not sure when I’m going to recover”), unrealistic expectations of what their recovery may look like (“Bed rest is how I am going to treat my PTSD symptoms”), or negative expectations (“I don’t think I will be able to get over what happened to me, my life will never be the same”).
At Resilia, an important part of our initial meeting with someone is to ask a few key questions which provide us with insight about an individual’s expectations of the situation and recovery. This is almost a screening tool for us, which highlights potentially problematic areas for recovery, or claims that are likely to become protracted. The benefit of knowing this information from the outset is that effective strategies such as The Resilience BoxTM Program can be implemented to prevent the onset of learned helplessness.
Claimants often become overwhelmed with claims processes, interviews, appointments and stakeholders, and they lose the ability to consider their situation as being one point on their life’s continuum. Our aim at Resilia, demonstrated through various techniques that we use, is to support the claimant through the difficult period that they are currently experiencing, whilst at the same time, reminding them that their current challenges are just a part of their life journey. We find that when someone loses their ability to maintain this perspective, they become vulnerable, and inevitably adopt a learned helplessness mentality.
2. Actively pursue recovery- don’t wait for it to come by
There is a multitude of evidence realising the health benefits of work, however, there appears to be a genuine behavioural gap between knowing and doing in this regard. Well-meaning medical practitioners often believe that a workplace issue needs to be completely resolved before they will allow their patient to return to work in any capacity.
Recovery will never be achieved if we wait for it to come to us... So we need to actively pursue it. The ability of all stakeholders to be flexible and creative when supporting an individual’s recovery is imperative. Offering flexible working arrangements, for example, working from a different office where an emotional trigger is not present, allows an individual to maintain work capacity, continue to be engaged with their workplace, reduces the chance of secondary physical and psychological symptoms emerging, and allows the confidence of the individual to return. The alternative, which is often delivered by an unfit certificate, encourages workplace avoidance, impacts an individual’s self confidence, disrupts workplace relationships, and increases emphasis on full recovery needed to return to work.
3. Recovery is not black and white - it is mixed with all shades of grey
Capacity for work should not be categorised as being black and white - fit or unfit. We don’t go to bed one night being unfit, and wake up the next day suddenly feeling fit and able to go back to work. Rehabilitation strategies often do not consider this, and there is commonly an approach adopted to wait until treatment to make someone better- ie: fit.
By realising that recovery is a continuum, and by adopting a flexible approach to recovery, claimants, treating practitioners, rehabilitation providers, insurers, employers... (everyone!) can benefit from the shift in mindset.
So why is all of this so important?
Psychological injury / mental illness can have such devastating effects for many people, not just the individual at the centre of the claim. By developing a learned helplessness approach, an individual makes their recovery more difficult than it already is. One key to avoiding learned helplessness is to expect recovery and actively pursue it. When we believe that we are in control of our situations, and we actively take steps to achieve our goals, learned helplessness will have no room in our cognitions. If however, we take a passive approach to recovery, without predetermined goals and action plans to achieve our recovery, learned helplessness can infiltrate all of our thoughts, and have devastating impacts for our recovery and future.