Some of the answers to the New Year blues and SAD reside in an observance of simpler pleasures and not the hard-to-achieve fitness and diet regimes often promoted at this time of year, writes Adam McCulloch.
Among the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as described by the NHS, are “feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness“, lethargy and “craving carbohydrates and gaining weight”.
Such feelings will be represented en masse as the nation dribbles back to work amid the usual gloom of early January. Many of us have spent festive season deliberately satisfying our carb cravings and gaining weight –a rare case of taking pleasure in creating our own disorder symptoms – so to some extent our annual traditions have given SAD a headstart. But coupled with financial anxiety post-Christmas, train delays and higher fares, the difficulty of fully re-engaging with work and pressure to get fit, there’s no denying that the workplace isn’t always the happiest in early January, however many leftover Quality Streets are passed around.
Mental health support at work
In 2020 there is also the prospect of Brexit negotiations and potentially worries over the policy direction of the new government, particularly among those who didn’t vote for Boris Johnson (56% of the voting population).
There is no shortage of well-meaning advice aimed at the one-in-15 workers suffering from SAD or the milder New Year back-to-work disorder which afflicts so many more. Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, writing for Personnel Today last month, advised employers to provide bright SAD lights and employees to get outside more and try new hobbies. He also highlighted the benefits of nutritious food and warned against the lingering effects of the festive season with its overindulgence of alcohol and chocolate and other winter comfort fare.
But many of these measures fall into the realm of individual choice and if sufferers are not feeling motivated it’s difficult for them to talk to their boss about lighting, or at home to find out about dance classes, volunteer to clean up the local river, learn how to prepare miso cod en papillote, go rock climbing or just get out of bed.
GP Margaret McCartney, writing in the Guardian, warns against over-reliance on the wellbeing industry for answers. She says achieving a healthy lifestyle should not be a complicated consumerist puzzle involving expensive memberships, diet books and deference to gurus. On the contrary, “some space, a pair of trainers and a bit of time may be all you need” and, she warns, “if you are neglecting your family or work because of the need to do it [become fit and healthy], that doesn’t sound like wellbeing”.
So perhaps the best advice for colleagues suffering from New Year blues – and SAD – might be to build exercise into the daily routine, perhaps walk further and avoid driving, cycle, use the free park gym for a few minutes on the way to work. As McCartney says, “exercise at its best should be something that we hardly know we are doing.”
Ultimately, for many of us, the New Year blues will only loosen its grip once we reconnect with friends and colleagues and make the effort to socialise. This may entail not strictly observing “dry January”.
It would also help if the sun came out.