Employee wellbeing needs to be a year-round conversation

We need to be driving awareness and offering support for workers’ mental health for the rest of the year too, not just on so-called ‘Blue Monday’, argues Paula Allen

Blue Monday is a phrase coined in 2005 by a travel agency press release, which dubs the third Monday of January the most depressing day of the year. Factors such as distance from the Christmas break, financial trouble, the weather, and likelihood of broken New Year’s resolutions have all added to the phenomenon.

The existence of Blue Monday has since been debunked and rubbished by myriad scientists, mathematicians, and psychologists. Even the original author of the press release spoke out in 2018 and said his term had been hijacked and was never supposed to have negative connotations. Instead, his intention was to inspire people to make bold decisions and take action in their lives.

Despite fierce criticism, Blue Monday has become something of an urban myth that for many creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. One arena in which it takes effect is in the workplace. The feeling of dread increases as flurries of social media posts and advertisements build in the run up to this fabled low point. 

When the third Monday of January rolls around, many employers often emphasise mental health services, check in with employees and conversations are encouraged surrounding wellbeing. While this is definitely a positive, it is indicative of an issue that is much wider. The reality is that employee mental health and wellbeing is suffering all year round. 

While there is no harm in reinforcing the availability of support services, to emphasise this on one specific day can be counterproductive. Employees should not need an unsubstantiated, nominated day on which to feel their mental health concerns are being recognised. Cherry-picking one day not only exacerbates feelings of poor general wellbeing, but it can also in fact create even greater anxieties. The existence of such a day sits in individuals’ minds and can act as a form of placebo that causes people to feel unsettled and low.

Employee mental health has been in decline since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. Lockdown limbo has been a huge contributor to this, given how often the guidelines and restrictions change. Relaxing and tightening of restrictions on freedoms in itself can trigger psychological effects. Since early 2020, unprecedented measures were imposed on all of us, and as a result mental health has become a huge part of the national conversation. The pandemic has shown that anyone can suffer from mental health concerns, with many whom pre-Covid had not considered themselves particularly plighted by these issues now struggling. One pinpointed day of awareness is not enough to cope with these incredibly serious issues. This needs to be a conversation we’re having all year round. 

In order to deliver the message that it is okay to speak up, confide in others, receive help, and take time to recover, measures must be implemented in the workplace. Support programmes consisting of buddy systems and regular check-ins are crucial to achieving these aims. While it’s important not to push an employee to disclose any mental health concerns, ensuring their wellbeing is paramount. Considering the work-from-home guidelines are still in play, this is even more prudent than usual. It may be unclear whether someone is suffering purely over sporadic virtual meetings. Reaching out with a message can prompt conversation, or even, as a simple compassionate gesture, boost someone’s mood. Any action, however small, which is taken to support your colleagues can have multiple benefits. Namely increased productivity, improved co-worker relationships, and overall increase in an individual’s wellbeing on a holistic level. Feeling appreciated at work is a key component in overall mental health in general. 

Flexible working also contributes to ensuring employee wellbeing is supported. Allowing an employee to complete their work in a manner that suits them, logistically speaking, can help to allay feelings of stress and anxiety relating to commuting or other commitments such as school runs and childcare. The work from home guidelines are still in place for now, but employers would do well to continue on with a flexible working model in the years to come. 

The best course of action is to take the well-meaning notion of Blue Monday and translate its benefits to a year-round campaign of awareness, support, and positive action. 

Paula Allen is global leader and senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks