In the run up to Christmas, demands at work and home can be sky-high, leaving people feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Shorter days during winter can mean there’s little time to get organised and many struggle with mental health related issues such as anxiety and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Head of Coaching at Westfield Health, Mark Pinches, discusses the impacts that the festive season can have on our mental health and Euan Laurence, Employment Solicitor at Blacks Solicitors, discusses the rights employees have when it comes to taking sick leave.
What impact can the festive season have on people’s mental health (e.g. stress, anxiety and loneliness)?
Mark: During the winter months, people can often feel down and less able to cope. Not only does our physical health take a hit due to low immune systems, depression and mental health related issues such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) tend to be more common. Whilst trying to plan the ‘perfect Christmas’, it’s easy to let stress get the better of you. Being too busy can have an impact on your mental health as there is less time to look after yourself when you might need it the most.
Christmas is about spending time with families, but for the less fortunate, it can be a very difficult time. People also tend to feel lonely during winter, with shorter days leaving little time for social activities after work compared to the spring and summer months.
How can SAD impact on people’s lives during the winter months?
Mark: Lack of exposure to sunlight during winter lowers serotonin levels in the brain, a hormone that affects mood, sleep and appetite. As a result of this, people often feel more tired and lethargic causing them to feel less motivated and productive when completing day to day tasks. People with SAD often have poor concentration levels, which results in them losing interest in things they normally enjoy doing and can therefore become less sociable. Although symptoms of SAD usually improve in the spring, in some cases this can lead to long term problems as these symptoms can remain all year round.
What’s the best way to manage SAD?
Mark: The severity of SAD differs from person to person so treatments can vary. In some cases, therapy or counselling will be required however some people may see a substantial improvement by making some small life changes during the winter months. When we are feeling down, finding time to exercise can be a challenge however, it is a great way of relieving stress and tension. By keeping up with physical activity, you will naturally boost your mood as your brain releases endorphins which are ‘feel good hormones’. In addition to this, spending as much time outside as possible will maximise exposure to sunlight and naturally improve your mood. This can be hard when days are short during winter, so going for a walk at lunch or walking to work when possible is an easy way of fitting this in. Having a busy calendar over the festive period may mean there’s not much time left for ‘you’ time. If you suffer from SAD, taking a break over the winter months is a way to recharge and replenish energy levels. In the run up to Christmas you may find yourself socialising more and sleeping less. Having a combination of quantity and quality sleep is an effective way to recharge your batteries when suffering with SAD. Most of us will need somewhere between 6-9 hours of sleep to feel good during the day.
Do you have any recommendations on keeping Christmas stress and anxiety to a minimum?
Mark: During the busy Christmas period, it’s easy to take on too much both at work and in your personal life, so it’s important to not be afraid to say no. Taking on too much will make you feel stressed and run down so it is better to have a smaller work load and complete tasks efficiently than to over-stretch yourself. When organising Christmas plans, don’t get caught up on trying to make everything perfect and forget to enjoy yourself. Laughing helps to keep the mind clear and balanced so it’s important to have some fun! If things go wrong, try your best to see the positives, you’ll be surprised how much better you’ll feel if you laugh it off.
What are your rights as an employee for taking sick leave?
Euan: In our experience, mental health problems such as stress are an increasingly common reason for employees needing to take sick leave during the winter months. This may well be attributable to the fact that employees are working longer hours, compared to previous generations. There are many reasons for employers to be interested in protecting the mental health of their staff (not least, talent retention and productivity) but from a legal perspective it is especially important as employers could face liability not only under employment law, but also under personal injury law if their employees are not given adequate support and protection from work-related stress.
How is it authorised?
In the first instance it’s a decision for the employee, who is able to ‘self-certify’ their sickness absence (i.e. without any note from the employee’s doctor) for up to seven days at the start of any period of absence. Any sickness absence after the first seven days needs to be authorised by a ‘fit note’ from the employee’s doctor, confirming the reason the employee is not fit for work and the period during which the doctor anticipates that they will remain unfit for work. Employees must comply fully with the employer’s sickness absence reporting procedures during any period of sickness absence. During the first seven days this will usually include calling a designated person at the employer each day, prior to the time they would normally be expected to start, to confirm their absence and completing a self-certification form. After this time employees will usually be required to; send in fit notes in respect of their absence at regular intervals, attend sickness absence meetings and (in some cases) submit to an examination by a doctor and/or occupational health specialist and/or provide access to their medical records. Thankfully, employers in the UK generally seem to be making efforts to get to grips with the issues facing employees relating to mental health and wellbeing at work and are, therefore, better equipped to provide that support to their workforces.
Interested in Wellbeing in the workplace? find out more at our Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Forum 2019
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