Winter is coming…

Girl in hat surrounded by autumn leaves illustration

The shortest day (December 21st) and the colder, darker months are associated with a range of undesirable outcomes including fatigue, negative moods and depressive feelings. But more broadly, the reduction in exposure to sunlight and colder weather can induce seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and make us more prone to sickness. Recent studies suggest that approximately one in three people suffer some degree of SAD, while 6% of the UK population suffer acutely.

Whatever the cause, one thing is clear. Shorter, darker days can have surprisingly serious impacts on employee wellbeing, productivity and engagement. The estimated cost of sickness runs into the billions in the UK alone. And lethargy and depression have wide-ranging consequences for employee wellbeing and other key indicators of organisational health.

While more and more corporations are putting a greater focus on employee wellbeing, few pay attention to how the change in seasons can impact on it. Here, we consider some ways organisations can help their employees combat the winter blues.

Sunlight for health and innovation

Quality sleep is fundamental to engaged and conscientious employees. While people are increasingly aware of the need for night-time blackout and avoiding screens to improve sleep, we’re less familiar with the role of daylight in effectively calibrating our circadian clocks.

Exposure to sunlight during the day is critical for cognitive processing, healthy body function and for ensuring a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation impacts our ability to self-regulate and focus (hence why diets go out of the window in winter and why we indulge in all the comfort food!). This natural response to light deprivation and poor sleep can increase procrastination and reduce employee productivity. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests sleep deprivation increases the prevalence of cyber loafing (no doubt made worse by the lure of Black Friday!). From an organisational point of view, such seasonal changes should be considered a management challenge. But cracking the managerial whip is unlikely to have positive effects.

Instead, organisations should consider empowering employees to properly cope with the environmental changes and not fight our biological responses. Research reported in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health suggests walking meetings and booster breaks are an effective way to get people out of the office into the fresh air – especially powerful during the mid-day slump. But this may also have broader ripple benefits for creativity and broader measures of wellbeing! Well-rested employees are likely to have more focus and cognitive capacity to deal with challenging problems.

A culture of positivity

Add winter blues to morning blues and you have a recipe for a disengaged workforce and “leave my company” new year’s resolutions. Indeed, reports that January is a peak period for job seeking. Setting a positive tone at the start of the day has been shown to improve the mindset of employees during the day. This, in turn, helps them to work better, and makes them more willing to help others and spread positive emotions rather than winter blues.

Enabling employees to pace their day is a great way to supercharge their motivation. Where possible, allow some flexibility in working hours to accommodate the more challenging environment. Making mornings at work something to look forward to is even better. Make the Monday morning huddles more than a work task check-in – make it a person check-in. 15-minute breaks around a cup of coffee and a tasty treat give people the opportunity to connect, the most human of behaviours. A sense of community and connectedness to the organisation are critical factors in reducing intention to leave and can also buffer the effects of stress.

Health and wellbeing as a leadership priority

While shorter days do not directly impact physical illness, the poor sleep associated with it reduces our immune system’s ability to cope with exposure to viruses – which zoom up as we hunker down in the cold winter months. As individuals we can, and should, do all we can to ensure that we are fit and healthy through sensible eating, regular exercise and quality sleep but even the most resilient will succumb eventually if bombarded by viruses.

According to insurance firm Aviva, almost 70% of employees have gone in to work when they felt sick. I have worked for a manager that angrily stated, “I have never been sick, I do not believe in sickness.” Such cultures are a false economy as the virus spreads, colleagues lose focus and we forget that humans are human and get sick! Nipping an outbreak in the bud not only shows employees that their employer cares about them, but also prevents the spread of viruses.

The changing of the clocks is a good time to reflect on the wellbeing and resilience of your workforce. Truly human-centred organisations will consider how the environment influences their employees and take measures to accommodate the associated behaviours for the benefit of both employees and the organisation. Step out and see the light.

Posted on 29th November 2018 in Culture
UK PLC and Covid-19 Edition 2: May 2020

Based on findings from one of the largest studies of employee opinion and experience during the Covid-19 crisis, our latest report reviews how well UK business leaders are measuring up.

Download the PDF
The essential guide to engaging and enabling employees in a crisis

Practical ways to communicate with,
support and motivate your people
through coronavirus and beyond.

Download the PDF