Are your employees in a ‘doom-loop’? (and what to do to get them out of it)

According to Andrew Shatte, chief knowledge officer, and co-founder, at meQuilibrium, 'doom-loops' exist, and if left unchecked, can be seriously destructive:

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Nov 14, 2023

There are many things in life that fill us with a sense of doom – or at the very least a feeling of quiet foreboding.

From a work perspective, these largely appear in the form of things that give staff ‘anticipatory anxiety’ – a bona-fide psychological term that’s summed up well by the familiar ‘Sunday-evening blues’ – where employees tend to dwell on returning to work the next day. It’s also that sense of dread some people often feel the evening before the first day back at work after a long holiday.

According to a survey by job site Monster, up to 76% of Americans self-reported having “really bad” Sunday night anxiety, compared to just 47% of people around the world.

But while most employees are resilient enough to briefly recognise this, and move on, HR professionals should take note; for staff are increasingly suffering from/getting into what has been described as far more destructive ‘doom-loops’ – where some can enter what it often a vicious cycle where employees consistently focus on the negative, rather than the positive.

According to Andrew Shatte, PhD, chief knowledge officer, and co-founder, at meQuilibrium, ‘doom-loops’ are a more dangerous form of disengagement or temporary ennui because those suffering it can get overly anxious about an overly and exaggerated, awful future.

Even when an employee experiences what others might see as a positive – such as a promotion – those in a ‘doom-loop’ scenario only see the increased responsibility that comes with it, rather than the career-affirming benefits.

Employees who are stuck in doom-loop constantly fixate on the negative and typically cannot work productively, he argues.

So how do HR professionals identify and deal with those in a ‘doom-loop’ – and should these people really be given special attention, or just be encouraged toughen up a bit?

TLNT decided to speak to Andrew to find out more:

Q: For those who have not heard of the term before, can you summarize it a bit more, and its impact on organizations?

A: “Doom-loops are a phenomena that sums up something we’ve been looking at for a while. It’s a term that neatly sums up how someone can get into a rut in his/her head, and see the world extremely negatively. It’s more than just having a bad day though. When people are in this frame of mind, they are continually scanning for the bad, rather than looking for the good/positives. As a result of this, the good/bad ratio gets progressively worse until it becomes so overwhelming that people become helpless and hapless, and get stuck in it. It’s bad enough at the individual level, but when these people are in teams, everyone else picks up on this negative emotion and the impact it has on others is that productivity sinks. Teams are seldom independent, but they are interdependent, and part of a chain, and so very quickly, negativity can spread wildly across the business.”

Q: Isn’t seeing the negatives sometimes just a fact of everyday life, and if HR panders to this, isn’t it yet another issue that potentially takes up their time?

A: “The problem with having people in your business who are in a doom-loop is that telling them to just ‘toughen up’ would be an entirely inappropriate response. Yes, they do need to recalibrate their thinking, but not by being told to in such a harsh way. There’s is a strategy that’s needed which acknowledges to people that challenges exist, and that there are winds of change, but that there is also a need for managers to show appreciation and recognise the good commitment that someone is demonstrating.

Q: Can you explain further how you think HR should intervene?

A: “I tend to think of it like this: when was the last time people were overcome with contentment? Probably not that recently! The point is, we tend to say people are ‘overwhelmed’ – but usually when it’s a negative emotion. But contentment is just an emotion too, so we – as HR professionals – need to be working on ways we can ramp up contentment in people. Being able to link people’s contribution to the business is one important way contentment is boosted. So too is giving meaning, a mission, and a purpose. These things are the most important and powerful feelings HR professionals can impart. Yes, we do need skepticism and negatively in life – because these feelings give us a better sense of what’s going on – but given that these emotions occur naturally anyway, we need to try and amp up the positive emotions that don’t often come so naturally.

Q: Doesn’t this cause us to risk creating something equally as destructive – which is ‘toxic positivity’ – blindly thinking everything is great?

A: “We all know that toxic positivity is just as bad in the workplace as constant negativity, but I believe positivity is an antidote to toxic positivity because there is – on balance – there is an overall need to inject positivity still. If we think of where we’ve been in the last three years, employees have been hit by things that are largely out of their control, and in parts, they’ve had false-hope too. When you put an already negative brain through even more trauma, it becomes highly negative and so organizations need to break through peoples’ optimism gap. HR has to bridge this by not glossing over things, but neither by being too optimistic. HR needs to lead on the things that are changeable. That’s the answer to doom-loops.”

Q: Do we need to reconfigure what ‘change’ is and how it impacts staff?

A: “Yes, exactly. The whole language around ‘change management’ is tone deaf, because – usually – any change is perceived as being difficult and disruptive. Most HR professionals try and take those who love change and those who hate change together, but as one big homogeneous group, which is why change often fails. What needs to happen is for people to be taken through a ‘challenge’ mindset. This is when change is seen as more of an opportunity and will have a chance of being seen as positive rather than negative.”

Q: Are doom-loops just a passing thing? As businesses and employees pivot to new ways of working, things will naturally sort themselves out?

A: “Unfortunately, doom-loops are still being fed by the current domestic political and economic landscape, as well as the increasingly more volatile global one. We’ve studied more than 7,000 people and have spotted major spikes in people’s stress and anxieties. The problem with people going through trauma, is that it just sits there, like a ticking time bomb, ready to go off again at the slightest period of difficulty.

Q: “What sort of advice would you give to an HR professional attempting to convince its board that ‘doom-loops’ are a real thing?

A: “The simple fact is people are about as depleted as they’ve ever been, but are also facing new challenges like we’ve never seen also. The challenge for HR is to start talking about better resilience amongst staff in a more mindful way.

So they shouldn’t dismiss it. When organizations literally have 25-30% of staff suffering from anxiety, they’ve got to start paying this sort of stuff attention. The vision of the CEO and CFO has to be aligned when it comes to matters like these. Organizations that do/do not act now will literally be on the right, or wrong side of history. It’s that big. HR has to give their people the right skills at the right time that’s their job. There are simply new truths that people in business need to accept now – and one of these is that it’s OK not to be OK.”