Does ‘Blue Monday’ increase mental health and wellbeing awareness?

By AJ Olaofe

a-man-laying-in-bed-on-a-laptop

Let me ask you a question. How do you feel today?

Do you feel any different from any other Monday? Has a bad weekend or the winter weather affected your mood?

I ask because the third Monday of January, today, is coined Blue Monday: ‘the most depressing day of the year’. And sure enough, this time of year often provokes thought around mental health and wellbeing.

However, as our Senior Disability Consultant Christopher Watkins has pointed out in a previous post, Blue Monday has no real connection with disability, In fact, it’s just the day on which is it easiest to sell you a summer holiday.

Created by Porter Novelli on behalf of Sky Travel about ten years ago, the idea of ‘Blue Monday’ claims to be based on a formula  including metrics including ‘travel time’, ‘delays’, ‘time spent packing’, and a number of other factors without defined units of measurement . By 2009 the formula had 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.

However, with recent research (from October 2016) indicating that 77 per cent of employees have experienced a mental health problem—and 62 per cent believing this was because of work[1], it is clear that poor wellbeing is not confined to ‘Blue Monday.’

A more difficult question is how to promote, or improve, wellbeing in the workplace. Indeed workplace wellbeing was subject of public debate between Christopher Watkins and fellow Senior Disability Consultant Angela Matthews at a recent event.

In many ways the dilemmas around workplace wellbeing promotional schemes mirror those of Blue Monday: whether it is valuable in promoting inclusion, or counterproductive because it promotes overly general ideas of what is meant by ‘well’ or ‘unwell’.

The solution for wellbeing schemes was found to be ensuring that they took individual employee needs into account, providing adjustments as employers would with a job – a tailored solution rather than a general one.

Similarly the best way to approach Blue Monday as an organisation might be to use the general subject of wellness and happiness to initiate and then widen the conversation about mental health, wellbeing and disability.

Although Blue Monday has no real link to disability, it can be used to start the conversation about it.

Needless to say  it needs to go beyond ‘the most depressing day of the year’. Businesses should keep mental health and disability as part of their conversations about well being all year round. This is why we encourage our Member and Partner organisations to keep in touch and make use of our Advice service and consultancy, your relationship with us can make a huge difference to the well being of your staff.

If  you are looking for guidance around mental health in the workplace take a look at our line manager guide Mental health at work.

Related news

 

Thirty-seven per cent more mental health referrals in January – http://bit.ly/2jPoWZl 

Disputed ‘Blue Monday’ (16 January) date actually coincides with sudden rise in mental health referrals, research suggests (Health Insurance)

Workplace design can combat winter weather’s effects on employee wellbeing – http://bit.ly/2ij8EXD

Features such as natural lighting, quiet areas and communal spaces could boost workers’ wellbeing during winter months (Workplace Insight)

44 per cent of workers say winter has negative impact on their mental health – http://bit.ly/2ijaHeo

Similarly, 30 per cent say winter affects their productivity (Business Matters)

 

[1] Business in the Community, ‘Mental Health at Work Report 2016’, p.3 (http://wellbeing.bitc.org.uk/system/files/research/bitcmental_health_at_work_exec_summary.pdf, retrieved 19 December 2016)

Blue Monday’s dirty secret (and why it doesn’t matter)

By Christopher Watkins


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[1] and Raynaud’s Awareness Month[2], but Cholangiocarcinoma Awareness Month as well[3]? Within the first week of February alone, we have World Cancer Day (4 Feb)[4], National Doodle Day (for Epilepsy, 5 Feb)[5] and ‘Wear it Beat it’ (for the British Heart Foundation, 6 Feb)[6], before a week of Tinnitus awareness starting on 8 Feb[7]?

Business Disability Forum. Marketing photos

‘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[8]. 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[9].

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!

[1] http://www.bhf.org.uk/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[2] http://www.raynauds.org.uk/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[3] http://www.ammf.org.uk/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[4] http://www.worldcancercampaign.org/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[5] http://doodle-day.epilepsy.org.uk/

[6] https://wearitbeatit.bhf.org.uk/

[7] http://www.tinnitus.org.uk/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/science/2006/dec/16/badscience.uknews

[9] https://web.archive.org/web/20100221213456/http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/media/news-releases/news-releases-2009/13-january-2009


You can talk to Christopher at christopherw@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk or Tweet him at @chrispydubbs

A taboo too far? Supporting colleagues expressing suicidal feelings in the workplace

By Christopher Watkins


The words ‘stigma’ and ‘taboo’ are fast becoming something of a cliché in the world of mental health and employment, yet few could argue that there are some issues that managers and HR professionals feel uncomfortable dealing with. It is hard to think of a more difficult situation than a colleague expressing suicidal feelings in the workplace.

Last month saw the Office for National Statistics release data on the number of deaths recorded as suicide in 2013[1], showing suicide rates continuing to track upward since the recession in 2007. The groups at most risk (and seeing the greatest increase) are men between the age of 30 and 59; the group most likely to be in full-time employment. Suicide remains the most common cause of death for men under 35.

These figures are only the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that only 1 in 10 attempts are fatal, and the majority of people experiencing suicidal feelings do not go on to attempt to take their own life. Collecting accurate statistics on this is next to impossible, but it is realistic to assume that in an organisation of 500 employees at least one will be experiencing suicidal feelings at any one time.

Colleagues having serious discussion

With recent ‘stigma busting’ campaigns working to encourage employees to be open about their mental health, it is reasonable to expect the number of employees expressing suicidal feelings to their manager or HR to increase. Our Business Disability Forum Advice Service has noticed this increase. While no manager or HR professional wants to find themselves having this conversation, the increasing openness of employees about these feelings presents an opportunity for intervention, support and ultimately prevention.

If you work in HR, this is an issue you are likely to come across at some point in your career – and it pays to be prepared. Navigating the initial conversation may be an intimidating experience. You are likely to feel out of your depth, but try to understand that the other person is probably feeling exactly the same way, particularly if this is something they are not used to speaking about. Don’t panic, judge or make assumptions; take the person seriously and accept that while you may not be able to help in the immediate term, you are very unlikely to make things worse.

Establishing boundaries and responsibilities at this early stage is absolutely essential. This is not something you can keep to yourself and it is not your place to become the person’s counsellor. When an employee tells you personal information about their mental health and has asked you to respect their confidentiality, it is safest to do so; but, you should still speak to HR (or BDF’s Advice Service) about the situation without identifying the individual. It may be appropriate to breach the employee’s confidentiality if they are at risk or their health is affecting their employment, and whoever you speak to should be able to advise you on this.

If they are not already receiving support from elsewhere, refer the employee to appropriate help. Depending on the circumstances, this could be to their GP, local mental health services, your EAP or Samaritans. If you feel that someone is at immediate risk of harming themselves, you should always contact the emergency services by dialling 999.

Finally, remember that suicidal feelings are rarely a ‘one-off’; this is an on-going situation that you may be supporting the colleague through for some time. These feelings may also be indicative of mental ill-health, so after the initial meeting and any urgent action required, you should sit down with the employee to explore the ways in which you are able to offer support. They may also need reasonable adjustments to their role, such as flexible working, more regular 1:1 meetings with their line manager, or a Tailored Adjustment Agreement

Christopher leads our Mental health: Handling serious situations masterclass, which equips HR and diversity professionals with the skills and knowledge they need to handle unusual and complex situations, including colleagues who are exhibiting suicidal feelings or unusual behaviour.

BDF members can also contact Christopher for advice on cases they are dealing with on christopherw@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk or 020-7089-2482


[1] http://ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/suicides-in-the-united-kingdom/2013-registrations/suicides-in-the-united-kingdom–2013-registrations.html

[2] https://www.disabilitystandard.com/resource-category/resource/tailored-adjustment-agreement/

Event review: Managing difficult conversations at work

On 13 November, we were joined by Members, Partners and guest speakers Tony Cates, Head of Audit, KPMG UK, Aisling Tuft, Recoveries Manager, Enterprise and Alastair Campbell, writer and political commentator at the launch of our new guide on ‘Managing difficult conversations’ at work.

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The event was hosted by KPMG and Stephen Frost, Head of Diversity & Inclusion explained that KPMG had sponsored the guide because they understood that being able to manage difficult conversations is fundamental to building and deepening business relationships both internally and externally.

016Our chair for the evening, Business Disability Forum (BDF) Associate Phil Friend OBE, suggested that conversations about bereavement, divorce, poor performance are challenging enough, but when you add disability or potential mental ill health into the mix the thought can scare even the most experienced line manager.

BDF Chief Executive Officer Susan Scott-Parker OBE explained that the guide was developed after we identified a need for up-skilling line managers to have honest and meaningful conversations with their teams. BDF’s aim is to get the practical tool into the hands of 4.5 million employees who work for our Members and to stimulate an ongoing interest in face to face training on the subject.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur panel found the guide useful in:

  • Providing constructive feedback during tricky conversations
  • Reminding managers that in spite of busy workloads sometimes setting aside the time for a difficult conversation and giving people time to speak in their own words will reap business rewards
  • Helping people to effectively prepare for difficult business discussions with people both inside and outside the organisation

The other recurring theme of the evening was how to have conversations about mental ill health at work. Alastair Campbell spoke openly about his own mental illness and the value of working with employers including the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair who understand the importance of judging employees on the wider performance and not on mental health episodes.

This advice was backed up by employers like KPMG and Deloitte who have supported directors and senior partners in openly talking about periods of mental ill health and recovery. This newfound openness has interested the business press who are starting to proactively report on positive examples of mental ill health at a senior level.

We left the event feeling that our guidance and the commitment of our Members in raising awareness of mental ill health at work, was contributing to a bigger conversation and a sea change in how we manage difficult conversations at work.

Stat of the day: Mental health in the legal profession

By Angela Matthews

The following statistics come from a study conducted by Lawcare, a support charity for the legal profession, earlier this year. They asked over 1,000 legal professionals including lawyers, barristers and legal executives in the UK about their experiences of stress in their workplaces. The following are some of the statistics:

  • 75 per cent of lawyers are more stressed now than they were five years ago;
  • 70 per cent said that their working environment was stressful;
  • 63 per cent felt that they are not working to the standard that they want to achieve;
  • 47 per cent occasionally felt at ‘breaking point’;
  • 45 per cent said they do not get enough support;
  • 31 per cent drink more than the recommended units of alcohol;
  • 14 per cent take prescription drugs each day to help cope with stress.

Reasons cited for stress included:

  • Heavy workload;
  • Poor management;
  • Not feeling appreciated;
  • Unattainable targets;
  • Long hours;
  • Poor pay;
  • Job insecurity.

Lawcare’s press release said, “Lawyers are, as a rule, high achievers who have high expectations of themselves. They do, therefore, have to be careful that they do not become stressed as a result of trying to live up to those expectations.”

I thought I should end on a positive note – 45 per cent of respondents said that, despite it being stressful, where they work is friendly. But then I thought that’s around 550 legal professionals who are working in an environment that they think is unfriendly. So maybe that’s not so positive after all. So, instead, I’m going for… it’s nearly Christmas!

Stat of the day: More stress

By Angela Matthews

Continuing with Friday’s ‘stat of the day’ theme of stress, AXA have also released some survey results (reported here). AXA surveyed 500 Small/Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and found that, although 48 per cent of employees feel stressed at work at least 2-3 times per week, 63 per cent of those organisations do not provide training for their managers on how to recognise the signs of stress, anxiety or depression among staff. Additionally, 73 per cent of those organisations do not have programmes in place to encourage positive mental health in the workplace.

Reasons for stress included:

  • Money – 34 per cent;
  • Work – 31 per cent;
  • Family – 18 per cent.

It could be argued that these reasons largely reflect the social and economic circumstances that the UK is currently experiencing, but it is interesting to reflect on Friday’s reasons and statistics where 76 per cent of respondents also said that their stress was due to work and money. This is perhaps not a massively dissimilar figure to the combined 65 per cent that accounts for work and money above (although considering that AXA have looked at SMEs, and only 500).

I also think it is interesting that the American figures from Friday came from a clinical study conducted within the realm of psychiatry, whereas this UK study comes from a position of mental health being a workplace issue that highlights a gap in training and employer support.

Stat of the day: Stress

By Angela Matthews

Research by the American Psychological Association released in July this year looked at the causes and symptoms of stress. You can see a breakdown of some of the statistics below:

Pie chart showing levels of stress

Note that a whopping 76 per cent of respondents said their stress was due to work and money. Additionally, 48 per cent say that their sleep is affected. All of the above elements represented in the chart could potentially have consequences in the workplace – physical symptoms, psychological symptoms, sleeplessness (this could have an impact on concentration, alertness, or performance, for example), and work/money issues. This is confirmed by the 48 per cent of respondents who said that stress has an impact on both their personal and professional lives.

The study also gives the most commonly reported ‘symptoms’ of stress. These could be indicators or changes in behaviour for managers to look out for in their employees:

Physical symptoms:

  • Fatigue (the most common, affecting over 50 per cent);
  • Headache;
  • Upset stomach;
  • Muscle tensions;
  • Change in appetite;
  • Teeth grinding;
  • Feeling dizzy.

Psychological symptoms:

  • Irritability or anger;
  • Feeling nervous;
  • Lack of energy;
  • Feeling tearful.

Bringing the topic to the UK, an article in the Metro this morning showed that workers spend around a year to a year-and-a half of their careers off sick. The main culprits? Stress and depression. And – the thing that made me gasp most – a third of full-time employees report that there is no sickness policy in place to protect them.

You can read the article here.