The holiday season is fast-approaching and while for many this can be an enjoyable and busy time, for some people this is not always the case.

Supporting employee well-being, happiness and mental health is a growing responsibility for all of business management: not just for the individual.

As UK charity Samaritans report increased demand on its services over Christmas, now is an opportunity for employers to look at how they can provide support and address emotional health in the workplace.

Well-being: not simply the absence of illness

Before we consider how to support employees, it’s worth recognizing that the way we define ‘well-being’and health has changed over the last decade.

As international healthcare group Bupa describes in research, being healthy is no longer regarded merely as the “absence of illness”. For employees and employers alike, the concept of health is now approached holistically, with greater emphasis placed on aspects such as fitness, sleep and emotional or mental well-being.

The World Health Organisation defines mental health itself as a ‘state of well-being’:

“Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” (Source: World Health Organisation)

While work has increased to challenge the ‘taboo’ of discussing mental health and emotional well-being, pioneered by campaigns including Time to Change or organizations such as Mind, employer responsibility has yet to match this holistic view and provide real support.

Ninety-one million working days a year are lost to mental ill health, but only one in 10 British companies have an official policy on mental health. (Source: Bupa, ‘Why Mental Health Matters’)

employee wellbeing stigma

Investment in terms of time and resources at both preventative and treatment stage for work-related mental health issues must become standard.

The most wonderful time of the year?

Mental health and employee well-being are year-round considerations. However, research shows that the festive period sees a peak in stress levels for many.

Increased absenteeism, the pressure of balancing festive or family duties with work and colleagues taking annual leave increases pressure on business and individuals; there are looming end of year targets, strategy plans to draw up for next year and everyone is being asked to do more in a shorter space of time.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that 42 percent of workers state that December is their most stressful time of year.

employee wellbeing stress

Workplace stress is directly related to physical well-being, with chronic exposure resulting in a range of ailments spanning fatigue and muscular tension through to hypertension and increased risk of heart disease.

Stress can also have long-term implications for employee’s psychological well-being, impacting on engagement, motivation and commitment.

employee wellbeing pressure

(Source: www.simplyhealth.co.uk)

For the business, it can translate into increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and negative impact on performance, higher incidences of accident and injury, workplace conflict, increased staff turnover and ultimately negative outcomes on your business bottom line.

Given the risks, what can managers do to protect their staff and businesses in the run up to the holidays?

1. Embrace festive spirit

Engage employees and boost morale by embracing festivities and getting your organization involved.

Booking in an office party that combines the questionable mix of alcohol, reduced inhibitions and the shedding of workplace stresses may get alarm bells ringing for some, but research shows the benefits can be far reaching for both individual and employer.

If a party isn’t on the cards or you want to go a step further, why not consider in-office decorations or events to mark the holidays, or join millions of other organizations in a charitable cause to give back to the community.

employee wellbeing happiness

Interact staff donned Christmas jumpers and gave donations in 2015 as part of a festive fundraising effort.

If you have employees who find the festive season difficult, this is a unique opportunity to get them engaged with celebrations and connecting with their peers. Interaction with others and getting involved is shown to improve psychological well-being and mental health.

2. Provide tools and opportunities for support

For some, the festive period can prove challenging due to a variety of personal reasons; ranging from financial pressures to family problems, loneliness, health worries or increased levels of stress. Whatever your staff may be going through, it’s important to provide support where possible.

If you have in-house support services, ensure these are accessible, promoted and well-resourced, with the necessary key information available for staff. Go beyond an “open door policy” and ensure staff are educated on where to go for help. Briefing line managers on signs of stress can help identify any red flags and address concerns before they escalate.

employee wellbeing support

(Source: www.simplyhealth.co.uk)

If your business resources are limited, consider signposting employees to relevant organizations who can provide support – for example, using your intranet to provide links to charities such as Samaritans, Mind, or StepChange (who provide debt advice and support).

3. Show appreciation

As millions of Americans celebrated Thanksgiving just a few weeks ago, we wrote about the importance of employee recognition and ‘giving thanks’ to our staff.

The holiday season is often used by employers to recognize and thank staff for their contributions and hard work over the year. Recognition can improve motivation and mental well-being during difficult periods, improving employee engagement with your business.

84 per cent of employees admit that a non-financial Christmas perk would motivate them to work harder, feel more valued by their employer, more likely to stay in their role rather than job hunt, and feel more recognized for the work they have done. (Source: Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services research, conducted by OnePoll)

For some, this may come in the form of financial recognition, such as bonuses. However, this can prove a costly approach. Consider some alternative approaches to demonstrating appreciation to your employees over the festive period – or simply take the time to say ‘thank you’, and let employees know their work is important.

4. Introduce New Year initiatives early

Got plans in the pipeline for new business initiatives in January? Consider communicating and phasing in proposed changes ahead of the New Year, when post-holiday blues can increase resistance to change or lack of buy-in.

With an effective internal communications strategy and tools such as management blogs or a social intranet, you can ensure transparency and protect employees from ‘crashing’ when returning to the office. The more time staff have to mentally prepare and get used to the idea of change, the more receptive they’ll be.

5. Promote time and productivity management

Many operating in HR or business management will recognize the seasonal dip the festive period brings in employee productivity.

Focus switches from reports and sales to gift shopping or what to wear to the office party, with many mentally leaving the office up to 2 weeks before the doors close. The stress of juggling home and work demands can cost both business and individual well-being.

Rather than burying heads in the sand, consider working with employees to maximize productive hours and offer flexible working opportunities. Offering defined time periods for festive errands or online shopping can help staff tick items off the mental To Do list.

employee wellbeing flexible working

Ensure Managers and Team Leaders are supporting staff in planning workloads, identifying what must be done before going off and what can be pushed back. Encourage staff to speak out if they’re facing pressures from deadlines and work towards solutions.

6. Manage expectations

Many business operations ‘relax’ or change over the holiday period. This is particularly evident in the B2B sector where many decision-makers are on annual leave, offices enter ‘festive shut-downs’ or shift focus to seasonal projects.

For your employees, this may mean that their day-to-day roles change. It may be increasingly difficult to sell to organizations when key figures are on annual leave, for example, or to engage with channel partners who have closed shop for a week. If your staff still have targets to work towards or are struggling to perform their normal roles, this can add to seasonal stress.

Encourage transparency and discussion about expectations during this time. It may be that targets need revisiting or adjusting, or role responsibilities re-defining. Ensure staff are aware of what is expected of them, setting out tasks to be completed and raising seasonal challenges.

Even the act of listening and acknowledging concerns can go a long way to promoting better employee well-being.

7. Define holiday working policies

Working practices tend to change over the holiday season. You may have less staff in the office, or more working from home. Managers on annual leave can result in fewer ‘checks’or support networks in place for those continuing to work.

Set out clearly where boundaries lie in terms of working practices and communicate these internally. Make sure employees have the necessary collaboration tools they need to complete tasks, regardless of location. If they need access to essential documents or information when working remotely, now is the time to evaluate your digital workplace and look at centralizing access for staff.

Ensure there is a defined hierarchy of who is available to contact, should they need help. This also protects those on annual leave who may worry about ‘switching off’ from the office, if they have team members or colleagues still working.

Finally, consider a ‘holiday policy’ for the checking of work emails and messages, to protect employees from worrying about work when on leave. The ’email epidemic’ observed in many organizations is known to increase stress and lower productivity; perhaps the festive season is an ideal opportunity to pull the plug on servers, and allow staff time to recuperate.

8. Promote healthy choices

Tis the season for indulgence – with many traditionally consuming rather more than their norm of food and alcohol, while time pressures remove focus from hobbies, exercise or routine.

We wouldn’t suggest banning the minced pies or opting for an enforced alcohol ban at the office party, but given the potential impact of poor choices on mental well-being, employers do have a responsibility to promote the right message.

Consider offering ‘healthy alternatives’ to festive treats in the office, or user-friendly education such as an intranet blog about ‘know your units’ for alcohol. Encourage employees to share activities and events nearby such as the local Charity Santa Dash or gyms that are offering discounted classes or membership. Use management blogs to highlight and educate about issues such as drink-driving or acceptable staff conduct during office celebrations.

employee wellbeing alcohol

You can even consider tying in well-being events into your festive or charity activities – such as an office 5K for a local cause. Consider healthy rewards as part of your recognition program – such as offering a free massage, discounted gym membership, food hamper or spa experience for deserving employees.

9. Have a ‘Return to Work’ action plan

Uncertainty and the ‘January blues’ can hang over employees and cause undue stress and worry during the holidays. After time off, many also find it challenging to get ‘back into the swing of things’, making for decreased productivity at the opening of January.

Prevention is better than cure. Work with management to make department and individual plans for the return to the office, including blocking out the first few days to deal with backlogs or urgent tasks.

Encouraging employees to create a key ‘to do list’ for their first few days will help ease staff back in.

Seasonal stress is the responsibility of employers

The festive period can be hugely enjoyable and rewarding time of year. However, for some, it can also be associated with increased stress, personal or professional difficulty and challenges that threaten well-being.

In 2014/15 stress accounted for 35% of all work related ill health cases and 43% of all working days lost due to ill health.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees. “During the festive period, the need for support from employers is more evident than ever,” argues Interact Head of Talent, Amy Needham.

“We need to take preventative measures to mitigate unnecessary stress over the festive period. We need to be asking our employees the question, ‘is everything ok?’ and ensure they know it’s OK to talk. Then we need to have the right support available, should the answer be ‘no’.”

By alleviating undue pressure, addressing stress triggers and communicating openly about mental health and well-being, we can play a key role in addressing employee concerns. With an employee well-being plan in place you can ensure that when your staff are in work, they’re mentally in work – and when they’re off, they’re able to relax and recuperate, and enjoy the holiday season fully.