Worker wellbeing during the festive period

The Christmas period can give way to fatigue, stress, presenteeism and sickness absence

Christmas can be a joyous time of year, but it can also bring with it numerous social, psychological and emotional demands resulting in an accompanying upsurge in health and wellbeing issues.

At a time when many companies implement different shift patterns and in some cases operate on skeleton staff, these heightened vulnerabilities can exacerbate the challenges.

Christmas cheer or fear?

Christmas is the holiday most associated with overindulgence in alcohol.

According to the Home Office alcohol-related sick days are estimated to cost employers around £1.7 billion. The latest research from Willis Towers Watson found that one in four (25%) 18- to 34-year-olds have taken sick days in the past 12 months because of hangovers. What’s more, a quarter of all UK workers suffer hangovers that affect their productivity on a monthly basis.

Hangovers can lead to headaches, nausea, dehydration and downturns in energy. Psychologists from the University of Bath also recently found that cognitive impairment caused by alcohol may last longer than previously thought. In a study published this Summer they found that next-day effects of hangovers could have serious consequences for the performance of everyday activities, including workplace skills that involve concentration and memory.

Where judgement and skills are impaired staff may also face increased safety risks, particularly where jobs require the operation of vehicles or heavy machinery.

Companies should look to identify if alcohol misuse is a problem among their workforce and establish a defined alcohol policy. This should signpost effective support and intervention initiatives. Workers should also be offered appropriate guidance through companies’ internal communication channels.

Combatting festive fatigue

The festive season can end up taking its toll and leave many of us feeling lethargic and rundown. And this can be exacerbated by the dark Winter nights that lead to our brains producing more melatonin, inducing increased drowsiness.

The pressures of Christmas, combined with a change in working patterns and late nights, can also put further stress on workers. A 2017 Willis Towers Watson study found more than half of workers (55%) that struggle to get a good night’s sleep cited difficulties in winding down after a stressful day at the office as the main reason.

Many employees will have a drink to help them destress after a tough day. While alcohol may initially seem to help reduce tension this can be misleading and, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, it can ultimately end up making you feel more anxious and depressed.

Alcohol depresses inhibition – and so a first drink can help us to feel more confident and less anxious. The more is drunk, however, the greater the likelihood that negative emotional responses will take over. Drink alcohol on a regular basis and the effect on the brain's neurotransmitters can result in a negative impact on mental health.

The presenteeism threat to productivity

The issue of presenteeism is also brought into sharper focus during the colder months, when illnesses such as flus and colds are rife.

According to 2017 Willis Towers Watson research, 54% of UK employees feel under pressure to return to work before fully recovering from illness. The fear of a negative impact on job prospects was the key reason for this (cited by 50% of respondents). The finding suggests that many organisations continue to have negative attitudes – either perceived or real – towards sick leave.

Workers returning to work before they are properly recovered, or failing to take time off at all, can not only put their own health at risk but that of colleagues.

Employees should be able to take time off without fearing that it might have a negative impact on their job security. By fostering a sympathetic culture, with open channels for two-way communication, employers can ensure staff have a clear understanding of the treatment pathways available to them. Such a workplace culture should also help facilitate early interventions.

Moreover, employees will be reassured they have the support of management and that they can discuss conditions without fear of judgement.

By heading into Christmas with eyes open to such health and wellbeing risks, HR practitioners will be better prepared to safeguard both their employees and wider business performance.

Mike Blake is wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson