The Christmas period is often a time of joy and fulfilment, marked by festive celebrations and gatherings with friends and family. However, for some individuals, it can be a challenging time, evoking emotions of anxiety, loneliness, grief, and financial concerns, any of which can become overwhelming. And these feelings may continue into the new year influencing the wellbeing of individuals upon their return to work, especially amidst the chill of winter.

Whether Christmas was a difficult time or not, other factors contribute to an increase in poor mental health in winter. Notably, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as ‘winter depression,’ affects one in three people in the UK, adding a layer of complexity to the mental health landscape with changes like shorter days and less sunlight significantly affecting people’s mood.

Whether you’re an employer, team manager, or colleague, remaining attuned to behavioural changes within the workforce becomes essential, particularly in remote work setups where non-verbal cues may be more challenging to recognise. In light of these considerations, it becomes crucial to explore how to identify signs of poor mental health and effectively support employees navigating the winter months.

Recognising signs of mental health concerns

Shockingly, statistics reveal that one in six people experience mental health problems in the workplace. The repercussions of mental health challenges extend beyond individual experiences, as evidence from the mental health foundation suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions.

Therefore, it’s crucial to recognise behavioural changes in the workforce before it becomes a more serious issue. This requires a nuanced understanding of individual personalities and ways of working, and building familiarity with your teammates and employees is essential to effectively identify signs of declining mental health. The following indicators may suggest underlying problems, although this list is not exhaustive:

  • A noticeable dip in performance
  • Struggling with poor concentration
  • Consistently skipping breaks
  • Limited or no contribution in meetings, contrary to their usual engagement
  • Reduced flexibility in their approach to tasks
  • Demonstrating social withdrawal
  • Exhibiting irritability or defensiveness
  • Absenteeism or presenteeism
  • Appearing less decisive than their typical self
  • Projecting an overly negative outlook

These signs become particularly challenging to discern in remote work setups, where the traditional cues of body language are often absent. Therefore, being observant in all interactions, whether through email, direct messaging, or calls, becomes essential. Active listening takes on an even more significant role in the absence of face-to-face communication.

In remote, or hybrid, work scenarios, where the dynamics of physical proximity are replaced by digital connections, seeking feedback from those who share closer relationships with team members becomes crucial. This collaborative approach ensures a comprehensive understanding of the team’s wellbeing and enables timely support for those in need.

If you notice any concerns regarding someone’s mental health, it’s crucial to engage in open communication with them, offering your support. Alternatively, you may choose to escalate the matter to a manager or HR department, ensuring that appropriate follow-up and assistance can be provided.

Approaching the conversation 

Talking about mental health isn’t always easy, which can be a deterrent for people to ask questions when they notice something isn’t right. But, you don’t have to be an expert to start a conversation. It simply requires sensitivity and care.

When approaching someone to discuss concerns, getting the basics right is important. You should create a comfortable and private environment for discussions, free from distractions and interruptions, and make sure to give yourself enough time to talk – it shouldn’t feel rushed as this can make it feel you’re uninterested in what the other person has to say.

The following four steps can guide the conversation:

1. Listen

  • Provide an example of why you’re concerned to kick off the conversation.
  • Ask the person how they are feeling and allow them to speak without interruptions.
  • Resist the urge to fill the silences – allow them to have thinking time
  • Actively listen, repeating parts of what they’ve said to show understanding.
  • When deemed appropriate, ask simple, open-ended questions to encourage communication.
  • Try not to be affected by your own opinions on whether what they are saying is right or wrong.

2. Assure

  • Encourage the person to open up and assure them you want to help.
  • Reassure them that workplace issues can be discussed and addressed.
  • Emphasise your support and the availability of specialist help.
  • Promise confidentiality unless there are risks to the individual or others.

3. Support

  • Avoid diagnosing or giving direct advice; instead, ask if they’d be willing to speak to HR or a specialist.
  • Consider implementing a Wellness Action Plan or reasonable adjustments to support their well-being, such as providing increased support on a project.
  • Follow up on any agreed-upon actions and check in after initial conversations.
  • Maintain boundaries, whilst you can offer support, it is important to avoid becoming their only source of support.
  • If they are not willing to talk at the time, don’t pressurise them and revisit it at a later date.

4. Signpost

  • Identify available company resources, such as leave policies and employee assistance programs.
  • Suggest external support options, including GPs, NHS 111, and mental health charities, such as Mind. Assure confidentiality through those resources.
  • Encourage self-help measures like exercise, proper nutrition, and sufficient sleep.

Sometimes starting the conversation is the hardest part, but it can make a huge difference by allowing people to open up about their feelings and seek help internally at work or through external resources.

Key behaviours for supporting teams

Recognising signs of poor mental health and initiating a conversation doesn’t require an expert, but knowing where to signpost to expert help and maintaining key behaviours is essential to effectively support individuals within your organisation.

For instance, observation serves as the foundation for providing sufficient support. Cultivating curiosity, independence, and having an awareness of biases or assumptions will enable you to  identify subtle changes in behaviour. This approach will allow you to proactively address challenges and support the individual needs of each team member.

Equally crucial is being present in interactions, showcasing the value placed on the other person’s time and nurturing trust within the team. This emphasis on presence fosters respect, forming the bedrock of a positive team environment.

At a business level, valuing mental wellbeing establishes a culture where addressing mental health concerns is not only accepted but encouraged, actively working to reduce stigma. Creating a culture that empowers open discussions about feelings and emotions involves ensuring everyone stays informed on dealing with concerns and responding appropriately. Compassionate leadership, where managers openly share their own mental health experiences, also plays a pivotal role in encouraging others to open up when they might otherwise remain silent.

Empowering winter resilience at work

As winter brings challenges to employee mental health, everyone plays a crucial role in creating a supportive work environment. Recognising signs of distress, initiating conversations with empathy, and providing appropriate support can contribute to the overall wellbeing of the team. By fostering a culture of open communication, understanding, and proactive measures, organisations can navigate the winter season with a focus on mental health and resilience.

Sarah Smith, senior people partner
Sarah Smith
Senior People Partner at e-volveHR | + posts
Sarah Smith, a senior people partner at e-volveHR, navigated her career from an art background, driven by a passion for working with people. Her journey began in manufacturing, leading to nearly a decade at games studio Jagex where she transitioned from an HR advisor to HR operations manager. This was followed by a rewarding 5-year tenure at Redgate Software as a people partner. Now, at e-volveHR, Sarah manages key client accounts and thrives on diverse challenges.