Beating the blues: Supporting employees with their mental wellbeing in January

Need to know:

  • January can be problematic when it comes to mental wellbeing, but it can also be a positive time to introduce new initiatives.
  • Open communication around mental health, in addition to signposting towards official services and benefits, can create a positive culture.
  • Employers can use mindfulness, yoga, breakout spaces and other workplace initiatives to combat some of the physical influences on mental health.

Whether due to cold weather, lack of natural light or the end of the festive season, January is a peak time for poor mental wellbeing, resulting in the third Monday of the month typically being dubbed ‘Blue Monday’.

Poor psychological wellbeing might manifest in many ways, such as low motivation, a dip in performance, the use of coping mechanisms such as smoking and drinking, irritability or absenteeism.

So how can employers combat negative influences, and use the start of a new year as a time for positivity and resilience?

Key factors

Christine Husbands, managing director of RedArc, confirms that January is a particularly problematic time, with the healthcare provider typically observing a 30% increase in mental health referrals during this month.

Stuart Kerr, technical director at games-room specialist Liberty Games, agrees that the Christmas period can cause lasting problems into the new year: “Christmas takes a lot of energy, therefore [employees] end up feeling exhausted in January, which leads to a low mood, increased stress levels and blood pressure.”

Open communication

In January, signposting to services such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) is essential.

However, these benefits are not the first port of call, according to Mark Pinches, head of coaching at Westfield Health: “The key thing really is to open up those communication channels. We know that a lot of mental health issues would be minimised if we open up communication channels and reduce the stigma.”

Communication is particularly important when flexible working comes into play, says Husbands: “[Employees] can sometimes withdraw and become really isolated. It’s about making sure that [managers] keep in touch with them and are still interacting.

“[In general,] it’s very important for employers and line managers to know their employees and to recognise if they’re not behaving in their usual way, and to be equipped to have the conversation.”

Positive drivers

January can be a good time to create a wellbeing strategy, harnessing the ethos of improvement and fresh starts.

“[The start of the year is] very positive in terms of motivation, so [if an organisation wants] to kick start something, as far as a wellbeing initiative to promote a better environment around mental health, the new year is a good time to do that,” says Pinches.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand what a specific workforce will respond positively to, rather than blindly employing punchy slogans, says Husbands.

“Individuals who are feeling quite low to start with might find that more difficult,” she explains. “[Others being] all full of excitement can be off-putting when you’re feeling quite low.”

Combat the influences

The harsh reality of UK office lighting, published by Staples in December 2018, revealed that 33% of 7,000 survey respondents find their office to be demotivating, while 40% specifically stated that the lighting in their workspace is uncomfortable.

In the earlier, colder months of the year, employees are also less likely to be active, adding to the health and psychological impacts of the sedentary lifestyle inherent in many office-based jobs.

“It’s important people get enough fresh air and sunlight, so [organisations should] encourage employees to get outside at least once during their working day,” says Kerr.

Mental and physical health can also be promoted in the workplace via yoga, exercise classes, and mindfulness sessions.

“Mindfulness, and sessions locally in the workplace, give [employees] an opportunity to recharge the battery,” explains Pinches. “It’s very energy sapping to be focused on a screen all day sitting down.”

The structure of the workspace itself can also be an important element of ensuring mental wellbeing, says Kerr: “Breakout areas, such as games-rooms, allow employees time to take a break or simply move around and work actively which is proven to stimulate the brain.”

Resilience over reaction

In order to combat the seasonal influences and stresses placed on mental wellbeing, employers should promote resilience among staff. This might take the form of workshops and mindfulness sessions, or providing resilience toolkits and resources for employees to access in their own time.

Pinches concludes: “Resilience comes physically and mentally. If employees are over-worked or stressed and are physically quite strong and have the energy to deal with it, they probably have a chance of dealing with it much more effectively.”

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