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The top of a blue curve used in the background layout.
The bottom of a blue curve used in the background layout.

14 January, 2022

In this article, we look at how to improve mental health at work. This time of year can be particularly difficult for people facing the January blues. Your work, relationships, and overall wellbeing can really suffer. This article outlines ways to improve mental health at work. While the following tips are practical and useful, they are no real substitute for medical help. At the end of this article, you can find helpful resources to receive help quickly.

Why is this time of year particularly difficult?

What is Blue Monday?

The third Monday of January every year is known as "Blue Monday". The term was coined in 2005 by British psychologist, Dr Cliff Arnall, after calculating it as the most depressing day of the year. The calculation is based on a number of factors such as weather conditions, amount of light, debt, and the sudden departure of the Christmas season. This label caught on and ever since we see #BlueMonday resurface every year.

Some scientists don’t believe in this and dismiss Blue Monday as pseudoscience. Whether or not one day can be classed as the most depressing day, we all know this time of year can be challenging for our mental wellbeing.

While Blue Monday can seem like a negative, or even futile topic to dwell on, it’s a reminder of the importance of our mental health and wellbeing. Take this opportunity to discover new ways to improve mental health at work and get the year off to a great start.

The situation we find ourselves in during January 2022

On the 8th December 2021, Boris Johnson announced tighter restrictions to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. These restrictions included a push for remote work, wherever possible. These uncertain times can trigger anxiety and endless worry.

That takes us to now. There’s no daily commute so many people don’t leave their homes – sometimes for days on end! There's no sensation of getting home after a long day. It can feel like the working day dictates your life and a work-to-life balance was something of the past. Perhaps you feel you are living the same day, every day, like the Netflix show Russian Doll. You're not the only one. These conditions of working and living in the space can catalyse poor mental wellbeing resulting in a long list of negative side effects.

Plus, it’s dark. The sun doesn't come out until you're at your desk with notifications flooding in as your eyes adjust to the glare of your screen. The evenings draw in quickly. Before you know it, it's dark again.

According to the World Health Organisation, "One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. With the increase of remote work, before our initial priorities were: do I have a strong enough Wi-Fi connection? How comfortable is my chair? But, what about prioritising our mental health? It's vital we implement steps to prevent relapses of mental health conditions before they take place. Keeping on top of our mental wellbeing will benefit every other aspect of our lives.

You can implement the following steps to begin understanding how to improve mental health at work, in a way that works for you:

Ways to improve mental health at work

Make the most of the light

Light has a huge impact on our bodies and so it's no surprise the January blues take place during the time of year where there is little light.

Matilda Minchin, Research Assistant at Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation describes this impact: "Light reduces the hormone melatonin, associated with sleep, and increases serotonin, which affects mood and cognition. Light is a tool that tells our suprachiasmatic nucleus (body clock) what time it is and therefore what we should be doing and how we should be feeling. We thrive off routine, so the change of light duration has a huge impact on our bodies, including a need for more sleep, increased sadness, and a change in appetite."

Our relationship with light was explored in the Deep Time experiment where volunteers spent 40 days in a cave with no natural light and no access to the time. The volunteers had a shift in their understanding of time, with some staying up for 48 hours and thinking it was still one day. At the end of the experiment, the 15 volunteers believed they had been in the cave for 30 days rather than 40. Volunteers described: "I don't remember if I have to eat or if I've already eaten, or what I have to do tomorrow." This shows how much we rely on and respond to light.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

For many people, the lack of light is simply too much. This is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. In the book Wintering by Katherine May, SAD is described as "a form of depression that arrives with the shortening days. It can bring about feelings of sadness, misery, or despair, lethargy, insomnia, anxiety, low concentration levels, and a drop in the immune system."

If this is something you recognise within yourself, the best action is to speak to your GP about this.

How to receive more light whilst working remotely

  • Work next to a window if you can.
  • Aim to go outside every day on your lunch break. You could go for a walk, or even stand outside while drinking your coffee or scrolling on your phone.
  • Invest in a SAD lamp - sitting in front of a SAD lamp in the morning/evening functions as light therapy as the light stimulates the sunlight that's missing. Some lamps have an alarm clock feature so they can fill your room with light to naturally wake you up.

Establish a routine focused around boundaries

With the office now sharing a space where we eat cereal, watch TV, and usually de-stress from our working day, boundaries begin to blur between work and home. It's harder to begin work and switch off after a long day.

Have a dedicated workspace and set working hours

Having a clean space to work, separates your work from the space you relax. Removing any clutter can clear your mind and boost productivity.

Ensure you replicate your commute time with a morning routine, with breakfast, a change of clothes, and some time to yourself. This helps you feel like your time is your own and you're not waking up already behind on your day.

Likewise, in your evenings, this is your time and work should not trickle into this. Ensure you clock out at your contracted finish time and close your laptop and move away from your workspace. Sometimes this is easier said than done. On Microsoft Teams you can ensure you don't receive notifications after the time you finish. These can also be turned off while you're on your lunch break so you have the chance to switch off. This is a good practice of implementing boundaries that require respect, from your team and yourself. In a Forbes article, they write "setting healthy boundaries gives you the ability to express your thoughts and feelings in a way that communicates your needs." Having an evening free from any associations of work allows you to switch off, and prepare yourself for a decent night of sleep.

Evaluate your lifestyle

To best protect our mental health, it's important to evaluate our habits and understand how they impact our mood. Maybe dry January isn't such a bad idea if you know you always feel down the days after drinking. Perhaps for you, it's social media that puts you in a strange headspace. Seeing constant newsfeeds and dipping into people's lives in quick snapshots can be overwhelming and addicting. This feeds into your work. Taking a detox from certain apps prevents you from seeing something that could trigger you to feel down.

Introduce coworking for collaboration and connection

Loneliness does not accompany poor mental health well. As humans, we require a connection which is why remote full-time work can suddenly impact your wellbeing. Ways you can combat this are:

  • Schedule a phone call every single day - ensure you speak to at least someone.
  • Invite over a friend who also works from home, and work together for the day to replicate an office environment. This can be done at your kitchen table.
  • Call a colleague and work with them in the background. Transitioning to full-time remote work has resulted in heightened isolation and prevented bonds and friendships that naturally form in a traditional workspace. Feeling connected to members of your team can have a positive impact on mental health.
  • Have regular one-to-ones with your manager and team huddles and be honest with how you're doing. This sparks conversation and changes how your team can manage to work remotely.

Working with someone else adds variation to the day which is great for our brains. This new setup can spark new ideas and ignite creativity.

Move, in a way that works for you

We've all heard it before. Exercise plays a vital role in boosting our mood and reducing stress and anxiety. Exercise doesn't have to be a chore. Find something that works for you and do it regularly. This could include a stretch after sitting at your desk all day. Or maybe spend half your lunch break on a walk soaking up the light. You can find yourself snapping out of negative thought patterns and gaining a new perspective about a difficult situation you're in.

Mental health charity, Mind, says: "Doing something physical releases cortisol which helps us manage stress. Being physically active also gives your brain something to focus on and can be a positive coping strategy for difficult times."

Get creative

There are multiple mental health benefits from creative activities whether it's potting plants, colouring-in, playing an instrument, or painting. These creative acts lessen stress, increase positive emotions, and even lower your heart rate. Fully immersing yourself in a creative activity helps you slow down and gain perspective about how you're feeling.

Here are some creative activitiesyou can do after work to rewind and improve your wellbeing.

Writing

Perhaps writing down your thoughts and feelings means you have to face difficult topics and this can be hard. However, it can provide a sense of understanding and logic when you see it all written down on a page. Here are some writing exercises to get you started:

  • Write about your most perfect day. This can be a day you have lived or a day you would like to live out one day. Who's there, where are you, what season of the year it is, how do you feel on this day?
  • Write about how you would describe yourself to a stranger.
  • tream of consciousness - Begin with a blank page. Start writing. Whatever comes into your head, write it down, and don't edit it as you go. Let your thoughts lead.

Cooking

Cooking is a creative way to unwind after a long day while providing your body with the nutrients it needs. There are many mental health benefits from cooking such as helping you to establish a routine.It's also a rewarding experience that results in a meal and gives you a sense of achievement. Most importantly, it's an opportunity to gather your friends and family around the table, making sure you spend quality time with loved ones.

If you want to cook from scratch, here are some in-season ingredients to get you inspired: Ingredients that are in season this month are:

  • Apple
  • Date
  • Turnip
  • Cod
  • Cauliflower
  • Sweet potato

Combat the January blues with wellbeing practices focused on self-care and boundaries. Maybe one of these tips can help you gradually get through this month. While this article outlines how to improve mental health at work, for some people, these tips aren't enough. If you're suffering with depression, low mood, uncontrollable thoughts, regardless of the time of year, please reach out to one of the helplines below for support:

UK Helplines

  • Samaritans - You can talk about anything that is upsetting you and someone will be there to listen. They are open 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 116 123 or [email protected] for free.
  • SANEline - If you're experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else, you can call SANEline on 0300 304 7000 (4.30 pm–10.30 pm every day).
  • Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) - Call 0800585858 (5 pm - midnight every day) if you are struggling and need to talk. There is also the CALM webchat service.
  • SHOUT - A free 24/7 text support service. Text 'SHOUT' to 85258.

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