The only conversations I’ve had with other parents since the kids went back to school involve the words: ‘What did you do on your holidays?’ It’s a kind of unwritten rule that the first time you see someone in September, you have to ask about the summer break. And the answer almost inevitably includes the phrase: ‘It feels a lifetime ago!’
The answers to the holiday question were varied: some people travelled to far-flung islands and learned to surf, others went camping down the road. Accommodation included tents, villas, hotels, family members’ homes and just staying at home. The consistent theme? People weren’t in the ‘normal’ routine of school run and work commute.
Taking time out
Breaking out of routine and enjoying a week or so of different life is an opportunity to recharge one’s batteries, spend time reconnecting with children, a partner or friends, enjoy new foods, gain vitamin D from the sun and relax. In all cases, there are benefits to mental health and wellbeing, and to relationships – all of which can reduce stress.
Holidays are called a ‘break’ for a reason – they are a break from routine, from day-to-day stresses and pressures, from ‘normal life’. There are a number of studies showing the undoubted benefits of taking holidays; the memories people make on holiday can bolster them in bad times and be some of the happiest for children as they spend quality time with their parents.
But the return to reality can hurt. Financially, holidays can take a whack out of a monthly budget. People’s moods can darken along with the mornings; seasonal affective disorder is the name given to the mild depression that affects a large number of people as the days close in and there’s a lack of natural sunlight.
The return to work or school can bring back pre-holiday stressors – be it work-related stress, a continual stream of emails and phone calls or the difficulties of a commute or life/work balance. The challenge is how to help people build on the benefits of their holiday and, as HR professionals, we need to look at what companies can do to help.
Coming back from holiday in September reminds most people of the start of a new school year – regardless of whether or not they have children themselves. Like January, it gives people an opportunity to start anew, to do things differently, to set resolutions. Businesses can support their employees by introducing a range of initiatives to take care of their health.
Supporting employees when they return to work
Health is wider than physical health – it includes mental health and wellbeing, financial health, nutrition and weight, smoking and exercise. We are complex beings and we need to ensure we’re looking after all of the aspects that ensure we are happy and healthy.
A wellbeing strategy should be at the heart of any company’s people strategy, and ensuring a focus on all aspects of health is important. For example, running financial health workshops where employees can review budgets and how they balance spending and savings can be helpful, particularly with Christmas looming.
Supporting flexible working, whether it’s allowing some ‘work from home’ or flexible start and end times, can be of huge benefit to a number of people. If employees have long commutes or childcare responsibilities, offering some flexibility can reduce the significant stress of trying to juggle and balance life alongside work.
You could also consider providing support with nutrition: look at what you offer in your canteen or in vending machines. Instead of cake Friday, consider fruit Friday – or at least a mix of the two. Combine this with suggestions of increasing exercise and movement; sponsor pilates or yoga in the office or encourage walks at lunchtime. Getting people to break away from their desks is important for mental health as it helps reduce stress and anxiety.
Another way to focus on mental health is by training mental health first aiders and encouraging a dialogue through regular updates and discussions on improving mental health. You could consider establishing a relationship with an occupational health provider or private GP practice, which can design unique interventions on a holistic or individual level.
It’s also important to encourage managers to acknowledge their team members, whether it’s a ‘thank you’ or a postcard, or a bottle of something bubbly – it’s proven that being recognised at work has a significant positive impact on motivation.
Finally, have some fun. Whether it’s a social, a ‘bake and bring’, fancy dress for Halloween or a team lunch – why not suggest a corporate or team-level event to help carry some of the summer laughter into autumn?
Vicki Field is HR director of London Doctors Clinic