Other than making some people feel miserable, the winter blues can seriously impact work performance. Here’s how you can help employees combat it.
Welcome to winter – the time of year when all we really want to do is eat, sleep and repeat, just like a hibernating bear. It’s not uncommon for people to experience a dip in their mental health during the colder months. For people who already live with mental illnesses, winter can exacerbate some of the usual symptoms. However, for some usually mentally healthy people, winter can create feelings of melancholy, despondency and dampened motivation.
What makes these feelings extra difficult to manage is that life and work must go on even though those sluggish feelings won’t budge.
You’ve probably heard of the term ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD) before. It’s a form of clinical depression described in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as ‘Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern’. While this is likely more prominent countries that face gruelling, icy winters, roughly one in 300 Australians experience it.
While SAD might not be overwhelmingly prominent in Australia, Dr Nick Titov, psychology professor at Macquarie University and executive director of Mindspot, says many people still experience what he calls the ‘winter blues’.
“Wintertime means we can’t do things which we would normally do, and, as a consequence, we often find that our habits and routines change,” says Titov. “So the things which bring us joy and keep us stimulated and engaged, we may not be doing too much. Because of this, we often feel that we’re in a rut or that we’re running on a treadmill.”
SAD vs the winter blues
While the winter blues might not be an official diagnosed mental health condition, we shouldn’t discount the impact that something like this can have on a cohort of employees.
According to a 2015 survey by McCrindle, 35 per cent of employees experience reduced motivation at work during winter and 27 per cent said their productivity/effectiveness was reduced.
Unsurprisingly, the tendency to oversleep, overeat and socialise less also peak during winter (see graph below).
Combine this natural seasonal decline in motivation with our 2021 reality and you have a potential cocktail of misery.
“Routines and habits are important for many people,” says Titov. “When people are living in a place where there’s a lot more uncertainty, combined with restrictions to our ability to go out and exercise or have friends around, that is certainly going to compound our poor moods.”
Considering the winter blues affect us every year, do employers have a responsibility to address it? Or should they accept it as a natural cycle that some employees need to move through?
“I’m not sure if they have a professional responsibility [to address it],” says Titov. “But as leaders, we have ethical responsibilities.
“We want the people we employ to be as well adjusted, productive and happy as possible. This is going to lead to better workforce retention and engagement. I think there’s enormous benefits for us, as employers, to engage the team and support them to look after themselves.”
There are a few ways employers can go about doing this, as HRM outlines below.
Trimming to-do lists
When employees feel sluggish and unmotivated it’s not surprising that they might start falling behind on their to-do list or missing deadlines.
“You can really notice if an employee is experiencing winter blues when their work starts to suffer,” says Therese Ravell, director at Impact HR. “Often you can look at their KPIs or performance from last year and see exactly the same problem.”
“That’s when you know there’s a pattern that you need to address.”
This is when you should reevaluate their workload. Or as Ravell says, “check what’s in their suitcase”.
“I like to use the suitcase analogy because if you overload your suitcase at the airport, you’re going to have to pull something out in front of everyone in the check-in line, which can be really embarrassing, or your suitcase is going to bust.”
What she means by this is that when you’re not operating at your 100 per cent, and you overload yourself, you’re more likely to drop the ball in front of others or push yourself to breaking point.
“We don’t want either of these things.”
Instead, pack your day like you would a suitcase. Put the big things in first – such as the tasks you have to get done – then fill in the gaps with the smaller things that require less time, such as administrative work.
Also don’t be afraid to take a critical look at what you’re packing.
“You don’t need a ski jacket for a beach holiday. Reevaluate what you need and what can be put aside,” says Ravell.
Assisting an employee to trim their to-do list can help them feel more in control of their time. It will also reduce the likelihood of feeling overwhelmed with the tasks they need to complete.
Salute to the sun
Our bodies produce a hormone called melatonin that makes us feel drowsy and helps us sleep.
In winter, with the shorter days, our melatonin production is often out of whack with our routine. Sometimes this means our bodies are still producing melatonin in the morning when we’re trying to get ready for the day, leading us to feel sluggish and unmotivated.
The natural remedy to this is light.
In the workplace, make sure blinds are open so plenty of sunlight can pour in. If it tends to be dark in your workplace, lamps and overhead lights are a fine alternative.
There are plenty of light therapy lamps that claim to treat SAD, but these should only be used with the guidance of a medical professional.
In a remote environment, keeping an eye on light levels can be more difficult. In this case, Ravell suggests braving the cold and having outdoor virtual meetings.
“If I’m on a video call with an employee and I can see it’s very dark where they are [i.e. they might be sitting in a dark room], I’ll often ask if they have a balcony or deck where they can sit and soak up the sun while we talk,” she says.
We should also fight the urge to make every meeting a video call, Ravell suggests, as a traditional phone call gives the person the option to leave their workspace, go for a walk and find some sunlight.
Make sure leaders are setting the example, says Ravell, adding that she took the call for this interview from her deck to soak in the rays.
“So the things which bring us joy and keep us stimulated and engaged, we may not be doing too much. Because of this we often feel that we’re in a rut or that we’re running on a treadmill.” – Dr Nick Titov, Macquarie University.
Mental health is very closely related to physical health, so it’s important to remind staff to stay active.
“I encourage staff to move away from their desks and go for walks, [especially] in lockdown, says Ravell.
She also encourages employees to create daily step goals that they share via their internal message platform.
“We encourage employees to go for a 30-minute walk and when they come back they can share on Slack if they met their goal or not. This means they’re getting time outside away from the computer and doing some physical activity.”
Of course, getting moving is just one aspect of staying healthy. Good sleep health is also important.
Employers can help by encouraging employees to disconnect, suggests Titov. Make sure employees log off on time and shut off from work altogether at the end of the day – that means no late night email checking.
(You can read about some of the other types of rest you should be encouraging here).
Have a break
At this time of year, many people would usually take off for warmer climates, but with state and national borders closed, that’s nearly impossible for most employees.
However, this doesn’t mean employees shouldn’t consider taking a break. If done properly, time off can be helpful for an employee’s mental health and motivation levels.
“If work becomes tiring and employees are losing momentum then that’s a signal that they need to take a break and recover,” says Titov.
A staycation can still provide benefits, he adds. One of his team members, who usually travels this time of year, instead took time off to do renovations around their house.
“[That person got] a lot of joy and satisfaction from doing that. It may not be the same as a holiday, but it’s still going to give them quite a lot of benefits.”
Employers can help by actively encouraging employees to take time off where appropriate. Also, ensure employees are aware of your organisation’s leave policies and how they can apply for it.
It’s important to remind employees to be kind to themselves if they are experiencing SAD or the winter blues. Poor mental health can make your brain feel fuzzy and slow. Until the issue is resolved, they’re unlikely to be at their peak performance level, so managers and colleagues needs to be prepared to support them through that.
On the bright side, before you know it , spring will roll around and encourage a warmer, sunnier disposition.
Want to learn more about improving psychological wellbeing in the workplace? Check out AHRI’s panel on psychological safety at TRANSFORM 2021.