Many people feel we are in the most depressing months of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, leading to cases of the workplace blues.
For employees, this month can mark a seismic dip in their mood and motivation. Various factors combine to make this an especially challenging time in terms of mental well-being.
The excitement of the holidays is over, the lack of sunlight takes its toll, W-2 income statements start rolling in to remind everyone that tax returns are due in April. The list goes on. Add the fact that the U.S. is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases linked to the Omicron variant, and this January may be especially stressful.
In fact, many mental health counseling services offered to employees get an uptick in people seeking support in January.
It’s important that HR professionals take this time to assess their workforce mental well-being strategy. It’s not uncommon to see instances of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression, among employees or even Major Depressive Disorder with a Recurring Seasonal Pattern. These conditions are usually connected to the amount of daylight a person experiences and the effect of less daylight on the brain. Employees with these conditions can exhibit the same symptoms as others with depression; the difference being that symptoms improve when the days get longer.
While a case of SAD involves a specific diagnosis and mandates help from a professional, any employee can be impacted by a seasonal dip in mood. This fact makes January the perfect time for HR pros to take stock of mental well-being at work and look to make enhancements or improvements over the following months to ensure their workforce is running at full strength and feeling supported in the process.
Turn the calendar page to well-being
Workplace stress levels remain elevated, according to the LifeWorks Mental Health Index (MHI). The MHI report is based on a survey of 5,000 U.S. residents currently employed or employed within the last six months. In November, the index stood at -3.7, a drop of nearly four points from when the index was benchmarked prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. A negative MHI reading may be attributed to lower productivity and deteriorating feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression.
Looking at January and beyond, what steps can HR professionals take now to raise awareness of mental well-being and ensure employees are receiving the support they need?
Here are six tips for making any organization an employer of choice when it comes to mental well-being:
Normalize ‘the blues’
Spread the word that anyone is susceptible to depression, or feeling lower than usual, this time of year – and help is available. Feeling down during the winter months (or during any time of the year) should not carry any stigma for employees.
This should be especially clear as the world attempts to manage the upsurge in COVID-19 infections. Showing true empathy and letting employees know that feeling down or even depressed is common and can be managed will make them more willing to discuss and address it.
Open the doors
While managers are not mental health professionals, research shows they do play a key role in helping employees reduce stress and pressure. HR pros have a role to play in helping managers form closer connections with their direct reports.
Managers should be empowered to make themselves more available for employees and create an atmosphere where people always feel comfortable enough to schedule a Zoom call or drop by a manager’s office to ask a question or express a concern.
Teach the teachers
With your managers’ physical and virtual doors open, it’s important that they be taught how to look for clues that your people are struggling and in need of support. They also should be coached in how to assist employees who tell them they are feeling low.
Organizations can distribute talking points – complemented by training and coaching— to help managers steer employees toward the appropriate resources where they can access the professional help they need.
Meet employees where they are
Your current employee benefits package likely includes mental health support, but does it account for this new virtual world we’re all trying to navigate? For years your employees have become accustomed to being able to shop, do their banking and take classes online on any device at any hour.
In a similar vein, they will look to HR to provide individualized well-being services on demand, 24 hours a day, on digital platforms, including access to professional counselors. If your benefits platform doesn’t offer this option, it should.
Share your mental health strategy
While the wintertime blues in the Northern Hemisphere might require a concerted response plan from HR, it should be just one building block in a strategic foundation of mental well-being. At the end of the day, almost every employee does need or will need some level of support.
To be an employer of choice, organizations need to plan for a long-term strategy that covers a continuum of services and care to meet a wide range of needs. Some people might want mental well-being support every winter, others might want it in all four seasons and still others might want only occasional engagement when, for example, they are having trouble sleeping.
Close the loop
HR pros should work to constantly optimize their well-being strategies – and that requires a standardized feedback mechanism to gather data on what’s working and what’s not. Feedback tools can include employee surveys, listening sessions run by a trained facilitator and virtual focus groups.
Some HR leaders wonder if employees will truly invest the time and energy engaging with such projects in order to make them worthwhile. In my recent experience, they absolutely will. Today more than ever, employees are looking to their organizations to try to learn about their experiences and the issues they face. If you build feedback channels, they will come.
For many employees, this January has been unlike any other in their careers. With the usual seasonal blahs exacerbated by the reality of the Omicron outbreak, they are dealing with an unprecedented level of psychological stress.
This reality requires an unprecedented response from organizations. Fortunately, there is a way forward. By combining a short-term surge in mental well-being support with a long-term plan for enhancing mental health benefits, HR professionals can position their people to be healthy and productive this month and for many months to come.