With the prevalence of grey skies and cold, wet weather, winter has truly arrived.  However, this seasonal transition is more than just a change in weather with many experiencing a worsening of their mental wellbeing at this time of year.  Less daylight, more time indoors, disengagement with meaningful activities and less socialising all contribute to the lowering of mood through the winter months in a typical year.

2022 has not been a typical year. The legacy of the pandemic and the ongoing presence of covid contributes to extra layers of stress. Add to this the ongoing war in Ukraine, a cost of living crisis and the possibility of a general strike in the UK, it is no wonder people are struggling, with the Quality Care Commission estimating that 10 million people in the UK require mental health support[i].

The pervasiveness of poor mental health among employees is startling. Figured published by the Health and Safety Executive highlighted that last year saw over 800,000 cases of workplace stress, depression and anxiety in the UK, with stress, anxiety and depression accounting for more than 50% of all work-related ill health cases[ii]. Rather than be alleviated, these issues have grown throughout 2022.

It is incumbent upon organisations to support the mental wellbeing of their staff over the coming months. A dual approach is needed – putting in place programmes that stop difficulties becoming crises and helping employees support their own mental health in the face of life’s challenges.

Organisational Support

Counselling to support ailing EAPS: organisations need to recognise the unprecedented demands being placed on traditional avenues of mental health support. Employee Assistance Providers (EAPs) are struggling to meet the demand from employees suffering with their mental health, with many EAPs only able to offer emergency support and having to refer many cases onto an already overstretched NHS.  An alternative is in-house counselling services. These high-quality specialist services offer more accessible support through a small team of named mental health professionals who meet the needs of individual employees with tailored mental health support.

Train to Gain: another important step is prioritising wellbeing training.  Noticing the signs of employee mental health issues and knowing how to signpost people onto appropriate support can be daunting.  Mental health training for line managers and HR departments gives a structure for the support of staff and reduces anxieties around talking about these issues in the workplace.  Furthermore, instituting the training of Mental Health First Aiders is an excellent way of making mental health support visible and placing it at the centre of the working environment.

Normalising Difficulty: it can be difficult to talk about mental health issues, especially in the workplace. Organisations can counter this by talking about the issues openly in formal and informal contexts.  Discuss mental wellbeing in of team meetings, highlight support that is provided but also make time to check in with staff informally.  Ask them how they are and make it clear that your door is always open if someone want to discuss wellbeing issues.

Cultivating a Resilient Mindset

To bolster gains made through organisational support, it is important to also provide staff the skills they need to boost their own mental health.

Mindfulness: practicing mindfulness has been proven to reduces stress, promote relaxation and provide the tools needed to be resilient in the face of challenges.  As well as supporting mental health, mindfulness has been shown to improve overall health as well as boosting focus, productivity and emotional intelligence. Staff can be trained in it very easily and apps and other programmes can provide ongoing support.

Challenge Unhelpful Thinking Patterns:  mental health issues are often underpinned by habitual thought patterns focused on difficulties, real or perceived.  By gently challenging negative thought processes, we can reduce the impact they have on our mood and behaviour. Thoughts are NOT facts, they are interpretations, and this knowledge helps us be resilient in the face of thoughts that otherwise might lower mood and increase stress.

Explore – don’t Ignore: while we naturally shy away from feelings of unease, it’s important to surface difficult emotions.  They are internal states that we cannot outrun and trying to do so can worsens mental wellbeing. Learning to process these emotions, through journaling, engaging in creative projects or speaking to a professional teaches us to ride out rather than avoid moments of difficulty. This is the basis of emotional resilience that is key to good mental health.

Find the Right Balance: demotivation is often a sign that we need to pay more attention to our work/life balance. Actively putting clear, defined boundaries in place to transition from work to rest are key. Not checking emails after work hours is a simple but effective starting point. Instead engage in fun, relaxing or supportive hobbies and activities that boost our mood and prioritise our own wellbeing.

Cultivate Connectivity: humans evolved to form bonds and during the winter months it can be easy to spend less time engaging with others, and this can increase stress, anxiety and loneliness.  It is important to cultivate connection through activities that bring people together.  Volunteering or engaging community projects help boost mood and confidence whilst reducing social anxiety. Also, being proactive in organising meet ups and social activities with friends help reduce isolation and increase a sense of belonging.  This is hugely important in helping us maintain good mental health.

The last 12 months have been challenging and ongoing uncertainty suggests we need to be especially supportive of our mental health as we head into 2023. Responsible and progressive organisations must help create and environment that supports employee mental wellbeing, both for the good of the individual and the productivity and output of the organisation.  This approach coupled with individuals engaging in activities and techniques that promote good mental health offers a firm grounding on which to develop resilient individuals.

[i] https://www.cqc.org.uk/publications/major-reports/soc202021_01d_mh-care-demand

[ii] https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf

James Milford
Cognitive therapist at Wellbeing Partners

James is a fully qualified mindfulness-based cognitive therapist practitioner and trainer and cognitive behavioural therapy specialist, focusing on stress reduction, anxiety regulation, improving sleep, relaxation, mindful leadership, task management, mindful communication and relationship building.

He developed his theoretical understanding through the pioneering MSc in Mindfulness Studies at the University of Aberdeen and continued his training at the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre. He has also studied Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Birkbeck University. James is a member of the Mindfulness Association and is qualified as a practitioner in both mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques.