[SICK LEAVE] Prevent poor mental health at work this winter

David Price – CEO of Health Assured

November 04 2019

You may have noticed that the winter months take a heavy toll on people’s mood and wellbeing. Well, there’s a reason why.

It’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and it causes the winter blues between October and March.

Around 20% of people in the UK suffer from winter blues each year, which leads to reduced energy, irritability and low mood. According to the Royal Society of Psychiatrists, SAD leads to significant depression in about 3% of the population.

To put those stats into context, if you have 30 workers, then six of them will likely experience the symptoms of SAD—or even suffer serious mental health issues.

Poor mental health at work makes it much harder to manage staff performance and keep sick leave under control during winter. But while there’s no quick fix, there are simple ways to help your staff stay happy, healthy and able to work.

Boost natural light at work

From 25th November, the sun will rise after 7:30am and set before 4pm. That gives your workers around eight hours of daylight, most of which they spend commuting or working. 

In fact, some people estimate that the average Briton only gets 10 hours of sunlight each week during the winter. This lack of light is one of the main causes of SAD and can have a devastating impact on mood, productivity and health.

While you can’t make the day any longer, there are ways to help your workers up their intake of sunlight.

Reorder your workspace so that all staff have access to natural light. Make sure blinds and curtains are open and use rooms with windows for meetings or breaks. Finally, if you can, offer flexible working. A start time of 09:30am rather than 09:00am could give your workers two and half hours extra sunlight a week.  

Of course, your building may limit how much light you can let in. And not all businesses can offer flexible working. But there is another way to help your workers get more sun during the day…

Promote physical activity

All workers have a legal right to at least one 20-minute break if they work more than six hours a day. Encourage your staff to spend that time away from their work area. Ideally, by going for a walk outside.

Walking and other moderate physical activities can dramatically reduce sick leave. Research from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has shown that absence rates are 20% lower in physically active staff. And Public Health England suggests that a 10-minute brisk walk each day can even reduce the risk of early death by as much as 15%.

Physical activity is even more important for workers feeling the impact of SAD. But how do you convince your worker to leave the office when it’s cold outside?

You can start by banning staff from eating at their desks (it’ll be more hygienic, too). If you want a more positive incentive, offer a longer break and later finish time so workers can exercise during the day.

Or, if going outside isn’t an option, think about holding stand-up meetings. It doesn’t seem like much, but standing rather than sitting can have a big impact on health.

Nudge your workers to make healthier choices

The NHS recommends a healthy and balanced diet as a way to manage the symptoms of SAD. So give your workers a gentle push in a healthier direction.

Remove sugary snacks at work and provide fruit instead. Encourage workers to drink more water during the day. Offer herbal teas as a healthier alternative to coffee (but maybe don’t ban coffee entirely, unless you want a riot).

Remember, it can be difficult for your people to make healthy choices when juggling work, family and personal commitments. So think about workplace wellbeing training to teach your employees how to look after their health, even when facing tough life challenges.   

Most importantly, be patient with your staff, even when you see them making poor health choices. And accept that there are limits to what you can do…

IMPORTANT: Know when to offer professional help

All the points in this article will help your staff stay healthy this winter. But will they solve a mental health issue alone? No.

That’s because poor mental health is a serious issue, whether it’s due to a long-standing condition, a change in the season or a traumatic life event. Often the only option is to help your worker seek professional advice.

You can do this informally or take a more proactive approach and offer mental health and wellbeing support as a workplace benefit.

Many UK businesses now provide employee assistance programmes to help keep their staff fit to work and protect their people’s mental health—all year round.

If you’re worried about mental health and wellbeing in your workplace, speak to one of our wellbeing experts. Call 0800 028 2420

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