As we rapidly approach the shortest day of the year (21 December), reduced sunlight combined with extra pressure from the cost-of-living crisis means more employees than usual are at risk of developing ‘winter depression’. Employers should take proactive steps to help them weather the storm, writes Kate Martin.
Every year, the colder darker days cause many employees to develop ‘winter depression’ – medically referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The symptoms of this can range from persistent low mood, lethargy and a loss of pleasure or interest in normal activities, to feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness.
Over two million people in the UK are affected but, with people’s mental reserves already running low, even more people could develop SAD. The cost-of-living crisis could also cause them to become affected earlier than usual, especially if they can no longer afford their usual Christmas experiences, for example.
Although the exact causes of SAD are not fully understood, a lack of serotonin due to reduced sunlight is a key factor, meaning it’s important to encourage employees to go outside during daylight hours every day.
Mental health in winter
Encourage managers to lead by example by taking ‘fresh air breaks’ and leaving their desk at lunchtime. Sunrise alarms can assist with getting up on dark mornings, and lightboxes – which simulate the intensity of summer’s midday sun – used in the first part of the day, can boost mood and concentration levels.
Proactively reduce stress levels
Managing stress levels and exercise can also help. As human beings, we are only designed to handle so much pressure. We can usually cope with two or three significant stressors at once, so when things get more challenging, our ability to cope is diminished.
If employees are constantly worried about their finances, they have reduced capacity to manage other work and life demands. This means if they’re also struggling to meet a deadline or a customer becomes aggressive or their car breaks down, they may not be able to cope as they normally would.
Instead of waiting until they get to breaking point, a valuable exercise is to help employees take stock of the pressures they’re under and what they can and can’t change. Most people know which “straw is breaking the camel’s back” but need encouragement to act on this. For example, if they’re struggling to juggle work and eldercare, can they work more flexibly or can another relative help? If they’re struggling with a deadline, can it be moved back?
Encourage managers to support mental health
If employees are constantly worried about their finances, they have reduced capacity to manage other work and life demands.”
Although many of the issues now facing employees are non-work related, pressure at work might be the only factor that can still be controlled. This means the role of managers in supporting the mental health of their team is more important than ever. Not least as one in three (33%) employees see a supportive manager as an important wellbeing benefit, according to research carried out for PAM Wellbeing’s Health at Work report.
As managers at Kura, one of the UK’s largest customer service centres, discovered when they took part in our managing mental health workshops, the human side of managing a team matters just as much as targets and output. After learning how to have supportive conversations with employees and build a positive culture, managers were able to make employees feel much more cared for and loyal to the organisation.
Critical to empowering managers to provide this level of support is first educating them about the warning signs that someone is starting to struggle, so they can be supported before an absence or performance issue arises. These distress signals can include reduced motivation and concentration, missing deadlines or changes in attitude or appearance due to reduced self-care.
Some of the stressors now facing employees are so huge, and seemingly unmanageable, that many people are in denial and don’t want to face up to them.
If they know their energy bill or mortgage is set to almost double in a few months, instead of cutting costs, they might decide they want ‘Christmas as normal’ while they still can, setting the ground for bigger issues further down the line. Others are so overwhelmed by pressure at work that their ability to problem-solve to improve their situation is reduced.
In both cases, it can be helpful for individuals to be given the opportunity to have a wellbeing check, so they can talk one-to-one, in confidence, with a counsellor about how they’re feeling. This can provide a safe space for them to identify what they can do to manage their situation to protect their mental health.
The counsellor can explore with the employee what coping strategies may support them with managing their responses to stressful situations and discuss how they might speak with their manager to help reduce the risk of them having to go absent from work. If further support is needed, the counsellor can also signpost them to their GP or any additional psychological support services their organisation might have in place, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
The overall aim should be to support individuals at the earliest opportunity possible, ideally while they’re still in work, to help them build their resilience and reduce the risk of them going off sick with stress, anxiety or depression during the winter months.