Beating the January blues – improving physical and mental wellbeing

Written by: Fit for Work team | Posted in: Blog

January is traditionally seen as a time of great hope and optimism for the New Year; a moment to take stock and make plans.

But Blue Monday puts more emphasis on the gloomy side of January by designating the third Monday of the month as the most depressing day of the year. Dark mornings and short days, compounded by cold wet weather and, for some, the arrival of credit card bills demanding payment for the excesses of Christmas, can certainly make January a difficult month for some. Add to that the pressure some people feel in the month following the festive season to stick to hopeful New Year’s resolutions and undo the excesses of the festive season whilst battling virulent seasonal colds, and it’s easy to see why January can be quite gloomy.

‘Blue Monday’ was originally a marketing campaign for a holiday company trying to sell trips to the sun. But the idea has struck a chord and has long outlasted the company’s campaign. The marketing campaign was a bit of fun but it doesn’t undo the fact that many people do struggle at this time of year.

Good mental health is increasingly being seen as important to wellbeing and the success of the country, and the Prime Minister Theresa May has emphasised this with her recent pledge of more money for mental health services across the UK.

Anxiety, depression and stress are now the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK and an estimated 70 million working days are lost every year because of mental ill health.

Between 4-10 percent of the UK population are likely to suffer from depression in their life-time and one-in-four people in the UK will suffer with a mental health problem in any year. In a survey in Scotland in 2013, 9 percent of the adult population displayed two or more symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The personal cost of mental ill health can be grave but the economic cost to the country is huge, estimated at some £70-£100 billion a year and accounting for 4.5% of GDP in the UK. This makes mental wellbeing a central concern for all workers and their employers too.

Symptoms of depression

The symptoms of depression include:

  • Physical (e.g. loss of appetite, speaking and moving more slowly, lack of energy).
  • Psychological (low mood, low self-esteem, lack of motivation, irritability, difficulty in making decisions or coping with problems).
  • Social (losing interest in seeing friends or pursuing hobbies).

Steps to beat the January blues

  • Exercise. Physical activity is well known for beating stress and lifting mood. Depression is linked to low serotonin levels in the body and serotonin can be boosted by exercise. Serotonin is also boosted by sunlight so make the most of any January sunlight and get outdoors. Some scientists also believe that exercise increases self-esteem and gives individuals a sense of control about how they look and feel. The NHS recommends that adults do 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week (e.g. fast walking or cycling).
  • Build relationships. Research shows that creating strong friendships and connections with family and the wider community can boost feelings of wellbeing. Make more of an effort this month to see the people you want to get to know better. For example, try having lunch with a colleague; create some family time (perhaps by playing a board game instead of watching the TV); catch up with old friends; volunteer for a community group.
  • Food. Good diet is strongly linked to wellbeing and happiness and some foods are thought to boost mood. Sweet potatoes, bananas, lentils, green vegetables and oatmeal are all recommended for their minerals, nutrients and slow-release energy-giving properties. Regular meals, five portions or fruit and veg a day and plenty of fluids are all encouraged to maintain a good, stable mood throughout.
  • Giving something back. Volunteering your spare time to good causes is seen as a brilliant way to improve wellbeing by boosting feelings of self-esteem. Working with other people in the community will help you to improve your connections and give you a sense of achievement and purpose. Giving takes many forms: it could be as little as saying thank you or well done, giving up your seat on the bus, doing DIY for a neighbour or helping a community group.
  • Mindfulness. Take a moment to enjoy the world around you; the sights and sounds and smells. As life gets increasingly hectic, mindfulness offers the opportunity to step off the merry-go-round, take stock and enjoy the moment.

Employer responsibilities

Employers have a legal responsibility for the health and safety of their employees. For some workers, mental health issues will be so severe that they may be classed as a disability under the Equality Act. Employers need to be aware of their responsibilities under the law but also understand the wider benefits to the business of having a healthy, happy and mentally fit workforce.

A few small steps could help reduce stress and improve wellbeing in the workplace.

  • Create an atmosphere at work that is open, caring and friendly. Good team work and friendships in the workplace will build relationships and could reduce staff turnover. A good atmosphere will also give staff confidence to be open with managers about any health and wellbeing issues.
  • Train managers on how to successfully support staff with ongoing health issues. Encourage managers to listen and support their staff. Maintain good return to work support procedures for staff members returning to work after sick leave.
  • Reduce stress in the workplace – review how deadlines are set and whether they are fair, encourage staff to take their full lunch break and leave work on time. Ensure that all staff take their holiday entitlement.
  • Take time to reward and congratulate staff for their successes at work.

Fit for Work offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).

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