The Big Question: How can employers motivate staff during gloomy January?

Breckon Jones, director of benefits, health and wellness, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at American Express:

The best thing an employer can do to motivate staff during the gloomy month of January is not to refer to January as a gloomy month.

Robert Merton first coined the term ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ in his 1968 text Social theory and social structure as “a false definition of a situation evoking a new behaviour, which makes the original false concept come true”. A self-fulfilling prophecy also works in groups. So, in the workplace, it can mean that, collectively, employees’ expectations can become reality.

Think about it: if an employee hears often enough that they work in a matrixed environment or that the Monday of the last full week of January is the most depressing day of the year, at some point they, and everyone who reads the corporate communications or media reports, might just start to believe it is true.

We choose our moods. So, if a self-fulfilling prophecy can work for negative thought, it can also work for positive outcomes. As an employer, choosing positive and relevant words, phrases and images in employee communications is a fundamental element to shape any work environment.

Take a health example. Which of the following would you rather communicate to employees in January: ‘Do not avoid exercise in winter months because this could lead to the development of cardiovascular disease’ or ‘Love your heart by continuing to exercise in the crisp outdoor air this January’?

Both are designed to motivate, but I know which one is more likely to get me outside on ‘Blue Monday’.

Ricky D’Ash, remuneration specialist at Equity Insurance Group:

It is interesting that having come out of the festive season each year, employees can feel somewhat down. What can employers do to lift their spirits and make January less painful?

Employers could look to instill some fun into the organisation. In particular, contact centres, where staff may be dealing with frustrated customers arranging to return faulty goods, could hold themed days with prizes for the most inventive theme or costume. In a sales environment, why not hold an incentive or product-push day and provide something visual? Provide teams with balloons and, each time a sale is made, let the individual pop a balloon. It stimulates both visual and sound senses.

Hold charity events, encourage employees to contribute cakes and unwanted Christmas goods. Have a stall selling cakes at minimum cost and raffle off the unwanted gifts. It helps to give employees something to look forward to.
If you have an employee-of-the-month scheme, why not make January a month of employee-of-the-week for a change? Distribute ‘Welcome back’ desk drops highlighting some key events that are coming up and welcome staff back to a new year.

Ask for suggestions from employees of things they would like to do to make January more enjoyable – I bet they will have some good ideas.

Professor Ivan Robertson, director of Robertson Cooper and professor in organisational psychology at Leeds University Business School:

The external pressures on motivation, such as the economy or the weather, may vary, but the workplace factors that drive motivation, wellbeing and engagement do not really change much.

There are six essentials, and if they are not right, wellbeing, engagement and performance will suffer.

Firstly, resources and communication: give people what they need to do the job and keep them informed. Secondly, control and autonomy: do not limit the freedom of employees to do their job their own way, unless it is essential. Thirdly, balanced workload: make sure people are not overloaded and that they get enough respite from work. Fourthly, job security and change: keep transferable skills up-to-date and manage change actively. Fifthly, work relationships: make sure people are treated respectfully by bosses and colleagues. Lastly, job conditions: give people the best working conditions that can be justified.

My thoughts about how to give employee motivation a lift in January involve focusing on these six key factors and finding one or two ‘quick wins’.

For example, ask employees if they can think of a better way of doing something (control and autonomy) and, if it is practical, go along with their suggestion. Do something simple and not too costly to help improve relationships between people (work relationships). Give people a little more flexibility around their working time (balanced workload).

These are just suggestions. What works in each context will be something completely different, but if it improves one of the six essentials, it will almost certainly pay off.

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