Simon Blake: How to support your employees’ mental health through the darker months

In the weeks after the clocks go back, many people start to feel sluggish and down. As winter begins and the days get shorter, we are exposed to less sunlight – this is particularly true of employees who work predominately inside, such as office workers. This can negatively affect our mental health as a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression.

A number of individuals in your workplace might experience ‘winter depression’ or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The NHS predict that SAD affects around one in 15 people. The exact causes of SAD aren’t fully understood but it is thought some people are more vulnerable as a result of their genes.

A lack of sunlight in the autumn and winter can cause the body to overproduce melatonin, which is the hormone that makes you feel tired. Our body clocks may also be affected by lower light levels, disrupting our sleeping pattern. Common symptoms of SAD include a persistent low mood, a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, irritability, and feeling lethargic during the day. These symptoms can affect people’s mood and performance in the workplace.

However, there are some simple steps that organisations can take to support employees with their mental health and wellbeing during the winter months, which may help prevent or tackle some of symptoms associated with SAD.

Encourage employees to get some sunlight

It is important that employees are exposed to sunlight during the working day. Depending on the workplace, employers may be able to adapt the working environment to make it lighter and airier – for example, opening blinds and curtains where possible.

It is also a good idea to provide SAD lamps if your office is particularly dark, as the bright light can affect levels of hormones and neurochemicals, positively impacting our mood. In addition, fresh air and daylight can help boost energy levels, so employers should encourage walking catch-ups and remind employees to utilise nearby outdoor spaces for lunch.

Make sure employees have ‘real’ downtime

All employers should take active steps to encourage employees to set aside regular downtime where they are not distracted by their work.

CIPD research shows almost a quarter (23 per cent) of workers in the UK struggle to book time off, and those that do may suffer from ‘leaveism’. This can result in employees being unable to tune-out, and so they might continue to work whilst on leave in order to catch up with outstanding tasks, or even cancel their annual leave at the last minute.

During the winter months, people may be more prone to experiencing low mood, SAD, or other mental health issues. However, it is important that employers support and protect the mental health and wellbeing of their employees all year round, by ensuring that wellbeing is woven into the fabric of the organisation.

Make eating well easier

Our physical and mental health is connected, so when we eat nutritious food, it can help boost our mood and improve our mental wellbeing.

With darker and colder days approaching, it can be tempting to indulge in too much coffee and foods high in sugar, such as biscuits and chocolate. Overdoing it on sugar, caffeine, or alcohol during the winter and festive period can lead to lower mood in the long term. Providing employees with healthy snacks such as fruit, yogurt, or mixed nuts, can help them to maintain a balanced diet.

Organise an active team social

When it is dark and cold outside, often the last thing people want to do is get involved in physical activity. But exercise can significantly increase energy and concentration levels, especially during the winter months.

Research shows that physical activity releases feel-good hormones that can improve your mood and sleeping pattern, so why not organise an active social for the whole team? Be sure to speak to your employees about accessibility requirements, so that you can arrange an active social that is inclusive for all.

Further support

Making small changes in the workplace can help support people who might be experiencing the symptoms of SAD or other mental health issues during the winter months.

If an employee feels like they are struggling to cope this winter or at any other time of the year, then encourage them to speak to a trained Mental Health First Aider or their Employee Assistance Programme helpline if this kind of support is available, They will be able to signpost them to the appropriate support. If employees do not have access to either of these, then free support is available through helplines such as SANEline. In a crisis, NHS emergency services can be contacted anytime on 999 or the Samaritans on 116 123.