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Karen Matovu


head of mental health training

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How to keep your workforce happy on Blue Monday


The third Monday in January is ‘officially’ the most depressing day of the year.

Dubbed ‘Blue Monday’, it’s the time of year when the distraction of Christmas has long gone, apart from the bills, leaving nothing else immediately gratifying to look forward to. People may have spent a lot of time with their family, which can expose cracks and underlying issues, causing them to feel unloved or like their life isn’t what they expected.

Add to that long dark days, dashed resolutions and the pressure to start delivering at work again, and it’s no surprise that some workers will be feeling more than a little flat.

Fortunately, there are a number of practical things HR can do to lift everyone’s mood and create a more positive culture going forward.

1. Harness the power of praise

One of our brain’s main preoccupations is trying to work out what everyone else thinks of us. What did that person really mean by what they said? How should we have responded? And how we can protect ourselves from a negative comment next time around? We’re really very fragile creatures and hold what others have to say about us, good or bad, very close to our hearts.

Conversely, when our manager and colleagues are encouraged to comment on what they like and value about us, and to regularly praise us, we become more relaxed and our confidence to be creative and tackle problems grows.

Not only does this make employees happier, but it also makes them more effective.

Research by Harvard Business Review shows that top-performing teams give out nearly six positive comments for every negative or disparaging comment. Middle-performing teams give out 1.9 positive comments for every negative, while the worst performing teams give out only 0.3 – that’s three times as many negative comments for every positive one.

2. Encourage ‘kindfulness’

Many employees are  in the habit of regularly pushing themselves past their limits, so that the positive of feeling of being excited about a challenge turns into negative strain, both at work and at home.

We consciously make decisions that we know will put us under unnecessary pressure. And, when we finally hit our stride, we typically expect that level of peak performance to go on indefinitely. Then beat ourselves up when we inevitably can’t deliver more than we’re demanding of ourselves.

A major problem is that we’ve forgotten how to be kind to ourselves. We’ve learned how to suppress the physical and psychological desires that naturally guide us to do things that recharge us and make us feel good. Then wonder why we’re experiencing low mood!

At a time when many of us are already feeling fragile, it’s important to remind employees that it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to push yourself constantly.

3. Build in recovery time and rewards

Employees should be encouraged to set realistic goals and be kind to themselves by building in recovery time and rewards. Such as a short break to eat a piece or fruit and get a drink of water after ‘sprinting’ to meet a deadline, a short walk to get some of the limited sunlight around at the moment or leaving work on time to take part in a hobby they love.

Far from encouraging employees to slack off, getting them to use these activities to be kind to themselves will actually boost performance because, as all top athletes know, the key to sustaining peak performance is to build in regular recovery time.

We build muscles not while we’re actively stretching ourselves, but when we rest afterwards. The same is true of our brains.

4. Listen to employees in distress

Instead of just having a touch of the January blues, some employees might be struggling with an emotional crisis.

Even if someone is acting very out of character, some managers will either turn a blind-eye for fear of seeming intrusive, or ask them what’s wrong only to belittle their problems (‘Is that all? I thought it was something serious’) or plough in with unsolicited advice (‘If I was in your situation what I’d do is…’).

Unfortunately, both of these approaches can do more harm than good.

It actually takes immense concentration and energy to really listen to someone and see the world through their eyes, without jumping in to give advice or start talking about your own experiences.

That’s why a number of companies are now proactively developing their managers to become better listeners.

How to support someone in emotional crisis

Critical to success is reminding managers that it isn’t their role to act as a counsellor in anyway, but rather to listen and draw out information so that they can summarise the person’s situation and ask them at the end to think of things they could do to improve their situation.

This process of listening, summarising and encouraging the employee to self-solve serves two objectives:

  • Firstly, by helping the employee to come up with their own solutions, they are encouraged to take their own positive steps towards a better outcome..
  • Secondly, for most people, a problem shared is indeed a problem halved. The simple act of talking and being listened to increases self-esteem and confidence, while decreasing isolation and anxiety, ultimately boosting mental health. In many instances, an individual already has the answers: they just need validation when they say them aloud.

If the topic is deeply sensitive, or if an employee is unable to think of any steps they can take to improve their situation, managers should be equipped to signpost them towards appropriate support, such as HR, a good employee assistance programme or a free charity helpline.

5. Give people meaning

Another powerful way to lift people’s mood is to make them feel part of something purposeful. January is an excellent time to help people see how what they’re working on connects to the bigger picture. It’s also a good time to take a step back to look at what are people’s strengths.

Then encourage them to find opportunities where they can use them to good effect on a project, or task, which is personally meaningful. .

If someone working in IT is an amazing people person, think about ways they could interact more with others, perhaps by doing more face-to-face problem-solving.

If someone is a brilliant researcher, but so shy having to stand up and talk in front of people makes them want to call in sick, why not allow them to blog about their findings?

Whatever an individual’s strengths, when we do activities we’re naturally gifted at, and from which we derive great pleasure from doing, we become far more energised, motivated, happy, successful and productive than when we’re forced to do tasks we really struggle with.

So the more your organisation can connect people to their strengths and the organisation’s overall mission, the more exciting and energising the workplace will become for them.

Author Profile Picture
Karen Matovu

head of mental health training

Read more from Karen Matovu

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