Sally Wilson: What do employees value more than a Christmas turkey?

sally wilson

On balance Christmas has to be a good thing; the twinkling lights and celebrations of the festive period provide some respite from the gloom of December, the least sunny month in the UK with only 37.8 hours of sunlight last December according to Statista, ending with the shortest days.

But Christmas and other winter festivals can be very hard for people who have recently experienced the loss of a loved one as well as those who feel isolated for any reason, with Covid-19 and its wider impacts presenting additional risks to mental health. Also, many people can suffer from the winter blues, and seasonal affective disorder (Sad), sometimes termed ‘winter depression’, is very real to many people and leads to markedly poorer mental health at this time of year.

So what is valuable to employees who may find the Christmas break difficult? Consider starting with a ‘safety first’ approach, for example, ensuring that people who may be vulnerable are aware of who they can turn to. Promoting existing wellbeing services like employee assistance programmes (EAPs) is a basic first step, with a reminder that support is available when the office is closed. Normalising mixed feelings about the upcoming break can be helpful, for example, openly acknowledging in communications that the break may be harder for some than others and providing information about specialist helplines such as Cruse or the Samaritans.

It’s also a good time to remind line managers to be vigilant about the wellbeing of their direct reports. ‘Checking in’ conversations about people’s plans for the break are important, and managers should be ready to listen to disclosures about difficult circumstances and positioned to signpost employees to specialist help or support if they feel more input is needed than an informal one-to-one chat.

Business leaders and senior staff might consider using downtime over the holidays to become more informed about mental health. For example National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s (NICE) draft guidelines Mental wellbeing at work, currently under consultation, are a long read but accessibly written and backed by the latest evidence. Employers that take the time to read this will be well positioned to go in the New Year with a renewed focus on getting their approach to mental health right.

The above activities are unconventional ‘gifts’ but have the potential to foster goodwill at work much more effectively than a mass-produced Christmas card or indeed a turkey.

Sally Wilson is senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES)