Winter is coming: Beating seasonal blues in the workplace

As Canada's weather plummets from pleasant autumn chill to the sharp bite of winter, employee moods - and productivity - can drop right along with it.

Winter is coming: Beating seasonal blues in the workplace

As Canada’s weather plummets from pleasant autumn chill to the sharp bite of winter, employee moods - and productivity - can drop right along with it.

“When the weather turns cold and the days grow shorter and darker, it's easy for energy in the office to decline,” says Dr. Vivien Brown, Vice President of medical affairs at Medisys. “But the end of the year is also a critical period for employees to pull together and turn out their best work.”

Brown says fun office activities - perhaps a cold-weather theme like a hot chocolate day or winter retreat - can help keep a team’s enthusiasm up. Another idea to help boost morale and maintain productivity is to offer remote work arrangements, as “allowing employees to work from home can eliminate that frigid walk or icy drive and let employees know you want them to feel comfortable,” she says.

“This shows you understand how winter days can affect mood and psyche.”

Another simple idea to give employees a boost is stocking healthy food like Vitamin D enriched yogurts, vegetables and fruit in the office fridge to combat reduced sunlight and the pressures that come at the end of the year.

Kim Tabac, Chief People Officer at League Inc., says the company notices a higher rate of use of its health and wellness products during the winter months and suggests employers provide their employees with resources, “such as subscriptions to meditation and mindfulness apps like Headspace and Inkblot, and encouraging proper nutrition, sleep and exercise programs.”

“While it may be easy - or at least easier - to talk about mental health in personal, social and family lives, it continues to be more difficult to discuss openly in the workplace,” Tabac adds.

Brown also suggests creating good working conditions by using ecotherapy techniques. Ecotherapy has been proven to boost mood and energy “because humans are part of nature,” Brown explains.

Ecotherapy elements that contribute to creating a healthy work environment include some fairly simple things like decorating the office with live plants, which provide fresh oxygen and a bright green colour that research shows helps humans in many ways, including by improving alpha brainwaves; making use of full-spectrum lightbulbs that mimic natural sunlight which has been proven to lift moods and encourage the production of minerals and vitamins such as Vitamin D which combats depression and increases energy levels; and encouraging employees to get outdoors on breaks and connect to the natural world. Brown also notes that animals as low-maintenance as fish can reduce stress - watching them swim relaxes the brain and gives people a lift.

Tabac says one of the services League offers to its clients is the Mental Health Concierge, “where employees can live chat with a real health professional when and where they’re facing a health issue — any time they need.”

This ease of access is key when it comes to mental health, she says, as when an employee is having an anxiety attack or is in the midst of depression, it’s difficult to figure out who or what to turn to for help.

“Often times, you don’t even know where to start,” Tabac says. “According to a recent survey League conducted with Harvard Business Review, 58% of respondents reported that their employees are unaware of the company-provided health benefits to which they are entitled. This shouldn’t be the case broadly, and especially for something as important as mental health.”

Tabac recommends employers make mental health part of the full-benefits onboarding process, with introductions to specific resources and direction on how to access them.

“While seasonality can play a role in mental health, it’s crucial that employers continue to find ways to address mental health in the workplace year-round,” she says, adding that despite the fact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental illness each year, only 43% of them received treatment in 2018.

Tabac notes managers “play a significant role in safeguarding the mental health of their teams.”

“It’s critical that they receive education and substantial training,” Tabac says, so that they are able to engage in supportive conversations with their team members and to understand when they should escalate to a mental health professional.

She also suggests managers be prepared to lead by example and “share their own personal experiences with mental health rather than how someone else's mental health affected them.”

“As an employer or manager, one of your top priorities is caring for your employees,” Brown says. “Empowering your staff to understand and recognize depression is an invaluable way to support that mission.”

There are a few strategies employers can implement, including creating a simple brochure about workplace depression and handing it out to each staff member or bringing in a speaker or consultant to teach employees to identify the signs of depression and how to seek treatment.

“Remember, all employees need to know about this topic - not just management,” Brown says, noting that in many companies, management doesn’t have daily in-depth contact with every employee, so it’s important employees can recognize the signs and bring it to management’s attention.

“When your employees understand that their feelings are identifiable, it reduces uncertainty and may prompt someone experiencing symptoms to seek professional help.”

Brown also suggests that if employers notice a certain employee seems to have “checked out” at the office, they need to realize depression may be to blame. She says one approach is to have a talk with the employee - “remembering that you are not a psychologist but an employer.” A simple script such as, “Hey, you look a little down. Let’s talk. I’m here for you. Can I help you get counselling?” can be effective.

Small compassionate gestures - which employers can ramp up during the winter months - can “go a long way toward helping someone deal with depression.”

“While the winter months are an important time for discussion and action, mental health is not a one-time fix or something we can ignore the rest of the year,” says Tabac. “We must bring the conversation about it to the forefront in the workplace and provide wellness programs that support people on their mental health journeys year-round. By bringing mental health out of the shadows, investing in the right resources and encouraging leaders to share their personal experiences and struggles, we can create a psychologically safe and healthy environment that improves the overall employee experience.”

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