Today is the third Monday of January; so-called Blue Monday, apparently ‘the most depressing’ day of the year. It’s around this time of year that I get a glut of companies phoning me up to ask if I could speak at their mental health awareness event, run a workshop, or advise on the health & wellbeing activities they are planning to ‘celebrate’ the big day. And it makes a great deal of sense to do so: performance dips and sickness absence peaks are a well-recognised phenomenon in January, and such wellbeing exercises can minimise the effects of these on overall business performance. An eye-catching ‘day’ to attach an agenda to can also be a useful tool to raise larger issues across large organisations and promote cultural change.
I must confess, however, that I have mixed feelings towards the ubiquitous mass of awareness days at the best of times. My cynical side is frequently frustrated by the idea that by simply ‘raising awareness’ of an issue we somehow make a meaningful difference to society or individuals’ lives. And then there’s so many of them! Did you know that next month is not only National Heart Month and Raynaud’s Awareness Month, but Cholangiocarcinoma Awareness Month as well? Within the first week of February alone, we have World Cancer Day (4 Feb), National Doodle Day (for Epilepsy, 5 Feb) and ‘Wear it Beat it’ (for the British Heart Foundation, 6 Feb), before a week of Tinnitus awareness starting on 8 Feb?
‘Blue Monday’ might just wind me up more than the rest put together, not only because it is an issue close to my heart, but because it hides a dirty secret; one which, I fear, those working in the area are embarrassed to admit lest it promote cynicism towards the wider agenda. I have taken to asking organisations planning their Blue Monday events what they understand the meaning of the day to be, and have heard responses describing it as anything from the day on which people are most likely to be off sick with depression, the annual peak for deaths by suicide, the day in which people are most likely to self-report as being depressed…
Unfortunately, the reality is that Blue Monday has about as much to do with credible research into the seasonal prevalence of mental ill-health as the 1983 New Order masterpiece by the same name. The third Monday in January is, in fact, the day on which is it easiest to sell you a summer holiday.
Or, more specifically, it is a widely discredited invention peddled by PR company Porter Novelli on behalf of Sky Travel about ten years ago. It claims to be based on an entirely nonsensical formula based on metrics including ‘travel time’, ‘delays’, ‘time spent packing’, and a number of other factors without defined units of measurement. To be fair, by a 2009 press release the formula seems to have been reviewed to consider slightly more reasonable factors like ‘weather’, ‘debt’ and ‘time since failing new year’s resolutions’, again without any defined units of measurements but reassuringly (or miraculously) coming up with exactly the same day.
I’m not, to be clear, passing judgement on any of the causes or issues behind these awareness events and don’t for one minute want to suggest that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s easy to see, however, how well-meaning businesses and diversity teams can get bogged down in a relentless calendar of ‘awareness raising’, to the extent that they might lose sight of what’s really important: the benefits to business, individuals and society as a whole delivered by diverse workforces and inclusive practices. My message is simply to take a step back and consider the purpose of any event or wellbeing exercise you are taking part in today, and specifically the value these activities add for the time, effort and money invested.
So, have I been turning down these Blue Monday speaking engagements on principle, then? Of course not. After all, almost every awareness day is essentially ‘made up’, and it would be foolish to dismiss them on this basis. If you are currently investing in mental health in your organisation, it makes great sense to attach your activities to a (rightly or wrongly) recognised ‘awareness day’. It’s also perfectly sensible to invest in mental wellbeing at this time of year because you have identified that performance or sickness absence issues peak in the winter months. But for the sake of not just pedantry but transparency and credibility, please let’s stop calling Blue Monday ‘the most depressing day of the year’ and rather see it for what it is: a potentially useful tool to promote meaningful cultural change and reap the benefits of a healthy and inclusive workplace and society, with no need for a fabricated ‘meaning’ beyond that. Let’s have the courage to be led by tangible and empirically-founded diversity and inclusion priorities based on business and cultural need, not the unrelenting calendar of awareness events!