Leg 1: Case Study

Lesson 3: Topic 11 of 19

‘Jessica’ was a Certified Nurse Aide at a facility Keith once led. (He is one of our authors.) She was the stereotypical wallflower and extremely timid, so much so that the DON once privately commented, “She goes through life with a ‘kick me’ sign taped to her back.” Some of the other Aides were kind (or at least tolerant), while others were hostile towards her. She had a knack for annoying others. Some staff flatly refused to work with Jessica, even if they didn’t personally dislike her. Since some of the residents were rude to her as well, Jessica always wanted to have another employee along with her when interacting with them. This created staffing pressures for the scheduler. Jessica was by no means incompetent, but she cried whenever she felt tense, and exuded an attitude of helplessness that made her inefficient at her job and frustrated almost everyone.  

When conflict over Jessica happened, investigations were usually inconclusive, “he said-she said” situations, so the best resolution was switching shifts to get her away from coworkers who didn’t like her. Judging from her poor self-image and many insecurities, Keith strongly suspected Jessica may have been an abuse survivor, and so tried to be extremely patient and understanding with her. But there are limits on the help an employer can give, especially when the employee is unwilling to adapt. Ultimately, there were no other shifts or wings left to transfer to, and she was given the choice to change or be let go. She chose the latter. 

Whatever the origin of Jessica’s attitude and behaviors, she exhibited what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” The term originated from controversial research on dogs and rats during the 1960s, in which animals were subjected to painful electrical shocks. All could have readily escaped their cages. Then, some cages were equipped with levers the animals could push to stop the shocks. Only the animals in those cages would escape; the other group that could not stop being shocked did not even try to get out. They needlessly stayed and suffered the pain.

Since that time the concept has been applied to humans ― that is, people who could escape from painful situations, or stop making poor life decisions, don’t do so because they feel helpless. And with helplessness comes despair.