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Surviving the January blues

Laura Johnson

Laura Johnson on how to survive the most depressing month of the year in the office

I won’t mince my words, January is a gloomy old month. The weather is grey, your next holiday seems an eternity away and the last place you want to be after a blissful festive break is doing overtime in the office to pay off those Christmas debts. And to top things off, that evening glass of sauvignon blanc that often makes a dreadful day seem so much better is probably off limits as you regretfully bought into the flawed concept that we could all benefit from a ‘dry’ January. Yes, it’s all a bit dull and dreary and don’t researchers just love to rub this in our faces with an ever-increasing number of depressing dates to add to our monthly calendar. 

January kicked off with the whiniest day of the year on the first Monday after New Year’s Day (this is based on analysis of over 200 Tweets collected by a company called Upbeat over three years). The fact that the same day was also earmarked as a particularly busy day for divorce lawyers (there’s apparently a surge of divorce filings on this particular day) made it doubly depressing. Hot on the heels of ‘divorce’ and ‘whiney’ Monday was the 9th January – the day when most of us were predicted to give up on our well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions. And to complete the month of doom, there’s still the most depressing day of the year to look forward to (that’s the Monday of the last full week in January according to an academic named Cliff Arnall’s ‘depression equation’).

So prepare yourself, January is just one melancholy day in the office after another. Expect employees to slump a little deeper into their chairs, stare even more blankly at their flat screens and moan a bit more about the miserable weather whilst daydreaming of summer sun holidays on their favoured seafront riviera. But is this really any different to any other month? If you believe research, apparently not. Despite the bad press around January, it seems stress, depression and general workplace discontent are phenomena tormenting workplaces all year round.

In a recent poll by YouGov two thirds of employed people complained that their workload had increased in recent years making work more stressful than ever. And according to the Health and Safety Executive almost half a million people suffered workplace-related stress, depression or anxiety in the last financial year. This manifests itself in the office environment not only in the much-lamented form of sickness absence but also through arguably more damaging presenteeism. Yes, putting on a brave face and coming into the office while unwell is a growing phenomenon plaguing British workplaces. 

A recent annual work absence survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed a reduction in the number of sick days taken by UK employees. But while your top team may be proudly shouting about your declining absence rates to anyone who’ll listen, they’re more than likely to be neglecting that this is largely driven by the fact that more and more people insist on coming into the office sick. And this is not good for productivity, morale or your balance sheet (it’s estimated presenteeism costs UK workplaces £15 billion per year, compared to around £8 billion for absenteeism).

Obviously a major trigger for presenteeism is the recession-induced fear of ear-marking yourself as a target for redundancy by taking time off. But I would also speculate that the rise in easier to hide and stigma-surrounded mental illnesses is also a cause of this trend. Workers still feel admitting they are depressed or struggling with a mental health issue will damage their career, making spotting and addressing stress induced presenteeism a line management priority. 

Stress management strategies are now widely recognised to have a positive impact on worker output and state of mind, making educating managers on managing mental well-being an increasingly regular module in development plans and helplines a popular feature of employee benefits packages. 

But what else can you do? I suggest making office environments that little bit happier and that little bit more pleasant is a great way to lift the mood of your team. It’s easy for offices to become dull, boring and monotonous places that zap your motivation. So this January, I urge managers to turn their back on the doom mongering research and find ways to bring a little joy and cheer into their workplace. Making your office a place where employees want to spend their time will go far to enhance your performance in 2015.  So why not make 2015 the year when your reinstate the Friday office beer trolley, lighten up lunch hours with a table tennis league or simply open meetings with a smile rather than a moan?  

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