'Just one day' | PR stunt or not, Blue Monday highlights major need for staff wellbeing aid

PR stunt or not, Blue Monday highlights major need for staff wellbeing aid

'Blue Monday' is upon us, and while many a column inch is dedicated to this day every year, debate rages over the veracity of the “most depressing day of the year” claims.

The term was coined by Psychologist and Life Coach, Cliff Arnall in 2004, who purportedly created a “formula” for what he deemed the “most depressing day of the year” on behalf of travel agency Sky Travel. The firm then used the phrase in a press release to promote their winter deals.

The idea that one day of the year – specifically the start of the third week of January - is the most depressing day of the year is now widely considered as pseudoscience. Nevertheless, statistics do point towards low levels of wellbeing in the first month of the new year.

And it’s not hard to see why. January is a cold, dark wintery month at best, and for many, this third week of the year is naturally the period when reality starts to sink back in, after a Christmas and New Year break.

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Employees will have a myriad of personal and professional concerns on their mind – whether it’s rocketing credit card bills after festive spending, the cost-of-living crisis or concerns about job security as a recession looms or, in many cases, all of the above.

As Pete Cooper, Director of People Partners and Analytics at Personio explains: “This year, Blue Monday... takes another dimension as the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, adding another dimension to the return-to-work blues. Our recent research found that over two thirds (69%) of employees are worried or stressed about their ability to pay for essentials if the economy worsens over the coming months, and a further 22% are concerned about losing their job.

“But a stressed, unmotivated and unhappy workforce has its impacts. Where employees are not supported, motivation and productivity could be damaged – potentially resulting in people leaving, or ‘quiet quitting’.”

Cooper concludes: “Ultimately, Blue Monday is just one day. But this year, it’s a good opportunity for employers to recognise the pressures employees are facing and the need to support them through the cost-of-living crisis - both for employee wellbeing and business success.”

So, PR stunt or not, Blue Monday can still serve as a reminder to employers to recognise how their workforce is feeling and the importance of supporting them - particularly in light of new research from employee wellbeing and performance experts GoodShape, which reveals that one in three UK employees report continuing to work despite experiencing issues with their mental health.

Over half (55%) of workers feel worried to call in sick with mental health problems, compared with less than a third (30%) when reporting a physical illness. And in the last year, only 8% of employees took sickness absence due to a mental health condition.

Health and education sectors worst affected

A study, conducted by YouGov, points to a growing culture of ‘presenteeism’ impacting multiple sectors, which risks employees missing out on the support they need during episodes of poor mental health.

The sectors worst impacted are medical and health services, and education, with 50% of employees in these sectors reporting that they continue to work through mental health problems. Next is media and marketing, where 44% of workers admit to being affected.

The legal sector has the highest proportion of employees worried to report mental health-related absence from work (69%), followed by education (64%), and transportation and distribution (58%).

Younger women most concerned

Not all employees experience the same level of concern about reporting mental health-related absences. Women are more worried than men (60% of women vs 50% of men), and younger employees are more worried than older employees (67% of under-35s vs 46% of over-55s).

Overwhelmingly, employees believe their managers’ top concern about any absence is the amount of time they will need to take off work (64%). And considering absences for poor mental health last over 3.5 times* as long as for other reasons, employees could experience heightened worries in such cases.

Confidentiality is among employees’ top priorities when having to call in sick, with 67% agreeing that they would value such support from their employer.

“Some may be tempted to dismiss episodes of poor mental health as merely ‘the blues’”, said Alun Baker, CEO of GoodShape.

“In reality though, one in four of us experience mental health problems each year, and unless those issues are acknowledged and people get appropriate support early, common problems can escalate into something much more serious.”

Lack of understanding for mental health first aid

Despite UK organisations boasting over half a million trained mental health first aiders (MHFA), a quarter of employees say they have little or no understanding of such support, and 16% have never heard of a mental health first aider.

When asked to rank who they would be most comfortable speaking with if suffering from a mental health condition at work, only 11% of employees placed ‘a work colleague who is a mental health first aider’ first. This is compared to over half (55%) of employees who stated they’d be most comfortable speaking with an independent mental health specialist.

Baker continues: “These findings are a reminder to employers and HR professionals of the importance of properly understanding the health issues – physical or mental – affecting their people. Every organisation is different, and while mental health first aid is popular, other initiatives may support your particular workforce more effectively. In fact, our results present a strong justification for considering independent support, and question whether the traditional expectation for line managers to handle sensitive wellbeing-related calls is still appropriate.

Presenteeism is a false economy for employers. By being more proactive about understanding employee wellbeing, and removing barriers so employees can be open about their health challenges, leaders can make targeted changes for measurable improvement down the line. It makes sense, not only for the health of our employees but our businesses too.”

Employers must ‘remain vigilant’ over employee struggles

Noelle Murphy, Senior HR insights editor, at XpertHR, states it is “ vital that employers remain vigilant in recognising the warning signs and symptoms of staff struggling with their mental health.”

Murphy explains: “The accumulative effect of the pandemic and now, the cost-of-living crisis will leave even the most resilient employees vulnerable to mental health challenges. Checking-in regularly with employees is key to picking up early signs of mental ill health, and crucial to this is people managers driving frank, honest, empathetic and open conversations about employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

“These conversations can only be effective, however, if supported by a workplace culture in which employees can be forthcoming with speaking about their mental health and feel encouraged and supported if they do need to ask for help.

“Leaders must communicate regularly with their employees about all levels of mental wellbeing support on offer – where specific programmes are not on offer, simply offering clear signposting to external bodies can be effective to support their team and ensure they are in a position to do their job to the best of their ability.”

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