It’s time to ditch Blue Monday.
Most people will be familiar with the phrase at the very least, if not the concept of the ‘most depressing day of the year’.
Unmasked as so much pseudoscience deployed to flog out-of-season holiday packages by an opportunistic travel provider, the day has been seized on gleefully by those seeking to promote wellbeing solutions, for better or worse.
Naturally, interest in this day and the very real issues it purports to highlight spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people were forced to face their own wellbeing head-on.
Mental health was the vanguard at this time, and rightly so, with seemingly insightful messaging coming out to guide us towards a better place within ourselves – an inward reflection of the restrictions placed on our physical forms.
But the world has moved on over the past four years and those same old messages now only serve to remind us of this fact.
The problem is that Blue Monday, for all its surface-level guff, has the genuine and often systemic issue of poor wellbeing during what can be a difficult time of year for many people at its core.
Four years is a long time in ‘wellbeingland’
I’ve written about Blue Monday on several occasions for other publications and have witnessed the change in how the day is approached and perceived.
Originally focused on the mental health challenges that the pandemic brought into focus, it has since moved on to incorporate the accompanying pillars of wellbeing – financial, physical, social and environmental health.
Our understanding of how these pillars are related and impact each other is steadily growing, which can only be a good thing. However, it makes the issue of how HR and corporate leaders address employee wellbeing far more convoluted.
Of course, there are many solutions providers in the market that will jump to be the first in line to resolve this quandary.
The question is how this can be done without resorting to tokenism, leaving staff feeling like employers are just paying lip service to the issue before returning to more important/profitable topics.
Take this article UNLEASH published two years ago – as the world was coming out of pandemic lockdowns – as an example: 3 ways to prioritize employee wellbeing this Blue Monday.
While some of these recommendations sound healthy and manageable from a short-term perspective, they are neither systemic nor focused on long-term results.
Indeed, recommending that employees set dedicated times to switch off notifications sounds almost quaint in 2024.
The main thing I have noticed when covering Blue Monday for the UK’s financial services sector over the past few years is there seems to be a direct correlation between interest in the subject and distance from the immediacy of COVID-19.
I’m cynical by nature, it’s something of a key skill for journalists after all, but my own perception is that this reflected just how much empty gestures were being made in the name of employee wellbeing before being abandoned entirely when economic headwinds began to blow.
Why wellbeing should be central to HR
Employee wellbeing, as we are told ad nauseum, is vital. Anyone who dismisses this probably shouldn’t be working in HR at all.
What is harder to pin down is how this successfully works in practice.
Technology does have a role to play here, as our previous articles dig into. Adopting the right platforms and analytics can provide insight into areas where existing wellbeing fault lines lie, as well as the tools to address them.
This will come with cost, naturally, but investment in staff comes with its own gains.
What is learning and development if not a way to improve process and output, as well as demonstrate to staff that their future growth is crucial part of this?
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are often a good place to start here, providing support pathways for various wellbeing issues and proving to employees that there is someone watching their back, waiting to help when or if needed.
These are often bundled into employee life/health insurance packages as an added perk, so there isn’t really an excuse not to use them.
The onus lies on HR to properly communicate these options to employees and clearly signpost how to access them.
However, the unfortunate truth is that the larger answer is rooted in company culture. A lousy culture will create wellbeing issues itself, often exacerbating external and personal influences.
A positive company culture that proactively leans in to providing career opportunities, relevant benefits and effective recognition, as well as facilitating personal growth already has the key ingredients for constructive employee wellbeing from the get-go.
It’s easier said than done, of course, but culture permeates and endures; it’s not a one-and-done exercise like Blue Monday.
The post-Christmas return to ‘normalcy’ and associated financial concerns, the dark and cold days, and the pressure of maintaining ill-conceived New Year’s resolutions all conspire to place significant burdens upon mental, physical and financial wellbeing. January is therefore a good time to focus on wellbeing.
But then again, so is the rest of the year.
Every day is just as important as the one that preceded it and the one it heralds.
Figuring out how to maintain employee wellbeing and be attentive to what truly matters most to your people should always be top of mind for HR leaders.
What is to be done?
At the heart of addressing wellbeing issues is communication and as always, it’s a two-way street. Employees need to feel confident in expressing their concerns to HR or managers, or mental health first aiders if appropriate, while the other side of the equation need to be equipped with the training and knowledge to help.
This begins at the top of the food chain and HR leaders should be using their seat at the table to get other C-suite decision-makers to embrace the benefits and filter this down throughout the organization.
Employees are more likely to listen out for and seek out the help offered to them if they believe the organization and its management has their best interests at heart.
Appointing wellbeing champions and training mental health first aiders also offers another, perhaps more relatable, avenue for staff that may feel uneasy about discussing such issues with managers.
It’s also important not to focus too much on one pillar; mental health is often the priority, because of how individual and complex it can be, but ignore the rest at your peril.
Financial wellbeing has shot into the foreground as the cost-of-staying-alive crisis worsens, while elements of social and environmental wellbeing can be helped by avoiding strict return-to-office policies that prioritize office rent costs over staff concerns.
Please excuse the closing cliché, but there is no one-size-fits-all silver bullet for employee wellbeing.
Education, understanding, and communication are the foundations on which strategies should be built, particularly given the influx of Gen Z into the workforce in coming years.
Employers with a poor reputation for employee wellbeing will find talent acquisition and retention a far higher hurdle than before, Blue Monday or no.
It’s on HR to be at the forefront of this evolution going forward.
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John Brazier is an experienced and award-winning B2B journalist and editor. Prior to joining UNLEASH, John both led and wrote for a number of global and domestic financial services publications, covering markets such as asset management, trading, insurance, fintech and personal finance.