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Winter wellbeing: Top tips for supporting employees

Employers must be aware that this time of year can present wellbeing challenges including financial pressures, burnout due to extra socialising, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Winter can be tough on employees for a number of reasons, according to Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England.

Speaking to HR magazine, Blake explained that while the run up to the festive season can be an exciting time for many, employers must also recognise the potential stresses the Winter months can bring.

“It’s important not to dampen the frivolity and the fun around this time of year, but it’s also important to recognise that this time of year can be tough in a lot of different ways. Around Christmas, from a general wellbeing perspective, not everyone is going to feel at their best; there are financial pressures, there are more social functions with alcohol, it can take its toll," he said.

“I certainly find the month of December much more stressful than I did when I was 25!" he added. "So we need to remember that everyone will feel differently about this time of year, and to make sure you’ve enabled the right support for people who aren't feeling their best."

As well as the upcoming pressures of the holidays, the issue of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) also demands employers’ attention, Blake added. While research on the disorder is ongoing, it is most likely triggered by a lack of sunlight in Winter, which affects levels of hormones (melatonin and serotonin) in the part of the brain controlling mood, sleep and appetite.

Symptoms of SAD are wide ranging and can include depression, lack of energy, concentration problems, anxiety, overeating, social and relationship problems, sudden mood changes, and periods of hypomania (over-activity) in Spring. According to the NHS, one in fifteen people will be affected by SAD.

“We know that SAD is a lot more prevalent than people might assume," commented Blake. "As with any mental illness, we’d always say it’s important to look out for changes in behaviour that might indicate that something is wrong. This will be different with everyone. Some people might be sleeping a lot more, for instance, and others might sleep a lot less. Some people might be more irritable, whereas others might be quiet. The key is: is an employee behaving differently?”

There are a number of practical measures employers can introduce to support employees, Blake advised: “Practically, there’s a lot that employers can do to help employees who might be struggling. We’ve introduced SAD lamps [UV lamps, which imitate natural light] to our offices. It’s also important to make sure there are enough windows, so people are getting a lot more exposure to sunlight when they can.

“It can be a good idea to start walking groups during breaks to get people moving, and to make sure people are staying hydrated and have access to nutritious food in the office.”

These measures will ultimately help the workforce as a whole, he said: “We know that whether or not you have a mental illness, lots of people are going to find it hard when it gets colder and darker. Check in with your employees, and really think about that collective care you can offer.”