Busting the January workplace blues

(by Wallace Immen, Globe and Mail)

 

January is the cruelest month for employees, as evidenced by a spike in calls to experts for help with family, financial and mood problems. And after a year of increased workloads and uncertainty in Canadian workplaces, the experts warn this winter’s workplace blahs are destined to hit with more intensity than ever.

 

Stresses are building in pared-down work forces. Employees have less time for personal diversions and exercise, and the holiday bills are coming due at a time when wages are frozen and bonuses have vanished. It’s enough to make us all feel as though we’re missing a page in the manual for job and life satisfaction. Here’s a look at what the experts say employers and employees should know and do.

 

Calls for help to employee assistance providers typically double in January from December levels. “Reality sets in as people get back into the work routine after the excesses of the holidays,” says Lisa Bull, manager of training for LifeWorks, the employee benefits division of Ceridian Canada.

 

Of the 1,000 calls to LifeWorks for assistance in January, 2008, these were the most common requests:

 

Family and personal relationships: 28 per cent

Mental health: 25 per cent

Legal issues: 10 per cent

Finances: 7 per cent

Work-related issues, including stress: 7 per cent.

 

The company is expecting even more calls for financial, mental and stress issues this January, Ms. Bull says.

 

FEELING THE PINCH

“Finances have become the fastest-growing issue. We have already seen an increase in December of 10 per cent over the same time [in 2008] in requests for financial related issues,” says Karen Seward, executive vice-president of business development for employee assistance provider Shepell-fgi.

 

“Even those who feel secure in their job have increasing worries that they aren’t getting the pay raise they expected or didn’t get a bonus this year, while at the same time their living costs are going up [and] they are getting the bills for presents and socializing over the holidays,” Ms. Seward says.

 

These worries can be eased by asking for professional budget counselling and advice on investment planning and bill consolidation, she notes.

 

AVOIDING A SPLIT

What may turn out to be a benefit of harder times is that the downturn seems to have made more people appreciate the value of family, Ms. Seward says. “There has been a shift in the kind of employee requests for help with marital issues. Before the recession, a serious marital problem might have ended in a separation. But in the past few months, there has been a 10-per-cent increase in people asking for counselling to work on their relationship and keep a marriage going,” she says.

 

DON’T GET SAD

In northern countries, the winter blahs or even full-blown depression can set in because of the dark winter days. Up to 15 per cent of Canadians have symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), including fatigue, food cravings, anxiety, irritability and difficulty concentrating, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. People with mild symptoms can benefit from spending more time outdoors during the day and by arranging their workplace so that they receive maximum sunlight. At work, try to sit near a window, or ask a health-care specialist about whether a bright artificial light at your desk might help.

 

Counseling and therapy, especially short-term treatments such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, may also be helpful for winter depression, the CMHA advises. For people who are more severely affected by SAD, health professionals might also prescribe antidepressants to relieve symptoms.

 

Eat healthy: Employers and staff can work together to get healthier foods available in the workplace. In winter, a diet low on fresh food and your lack of exposure to sunlight can leave your body low on vitamins C, D, B5, B6, zinc and magnesium.

Foods such as whole grains, legumes, cauliflower, broccoli, salmon, liver, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes are high in B5. Magnesium, which also aids in relaxation, is found in whole grains, almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, pine nuts, beans, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, artichoke, spinach and kale. Avoid excess carbohydrates.

 

Get active: Another way to restore your body’s balance and ward off January blahs is to exercise: Vigorous movement helps raise your mood and reduce stress. Bundle up and go for a brisk walk at lunch hour, advises Bailey Vaez, owner of Proactive Movement, a wellness-program company. “Getting your dose of sunlight while at the same time working on your cardiovascular health will help reduce the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder,” he says.

 

Group activities are also helpful, so get a few colleagues together and start a boardroom exercise class, a ski club or even a snowball fight in the parking lot, Mr. Vaez suggests.

 

Banish the stigma: While nearly all major employers in Canada offer some form of program to help employees get help for personal issues, experts say that most workers who could benefit from such plans don’t ask for assistance because they fear being stigmatized for admitting a problem.

 

“There is a syndrome that many employees do not ask for help, particularly with mental health issues, because they fear that it might make them seem weak or not pulling their weight. That worry will only be exacerbated in an economy like this, in which there is little job security,” notes Dr. Joti Samra, adjutant professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

 

Get the word out: For employers, the advice is to get the message out: Remind employees in newsletters or websites, seminars and “lunch-and-learns” that assistance plans are available and that their services are confidential, so the company will not be informed that you asked for assistance, Dr. Samra says.

 

Companies, for example, can bring in experts to discuss ways to tackle stress, depression and personal dilemmas. Supervisors should also be trained to spot potential issues and approach employees to let them know that help is available. “When there is a positive organizational climate where employees can feel they can talk to managers about psychological health issues, employees report they are more committed and productive,” Dr. Samra says.

 

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TWO EXAMPLES

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Cisco Systems Inc., Employees: 1,200 in Canada.

 

The strategy: The tech company decided its employees had been working long hours and needed a break. In November, chief executive officer John Chambers issued a memo telling all employees to take off from Dec. 23 to Jan. 4, and to not send e-mails and/or text messages to colleagues during that time. Staff called it “take your hand off the trigger,” says Dave Clarkson, the company’s human resources director in Toronto.

 

The time off was taken from employees’ vacation allotment, but Cisco found that nearly all staff had not used more than half of their four to six weeks vacation time in the past year for fear of being away from the office, he notes.

 

Result: For Todd Madgett, director of small and medium business sales for Cisco Canada, the two weeks off was “a revelation.”

 

He hadn’t taken that much time off, at one time, in nearly 11 years with the company. “In the back of my mind there was always the thought of the hundreds of e-mails I’d have to catch up on when I got back, so most of my time off was just long weekends,” he says.

 

Getting back to work this week, “I feel recharged,” he adds. “There was a great peace of mind that nothing was going to be hanging over me and I could totally put the cares of work out of my mind for a few days.” It helped with his family life as well: “I have two young daughters and got to spend four days skiing with them. I’d never had the opportunity before.”

 

Fleishman-Hillard Canada Inc., Employees: 65.

 

The strategy: The public relations company knows January can be hard on employees, so it planned a breakfast meeting offering advice on personal financial planning and general wellness. Information on employee assistance programs is also being circulated to all staff via e-mails and the company intranet. Employees are encouraged to speak openly with their managers about any concerns and to work together to figure out the best solution.

 

A key initiative is a “massage at work program,” in which employees can have two free, 15-minute upper body massages in the office this month. The Ottawa office has also organized a series of stress-busting yoga classes.

 

Result: Staff were enthusiastic about the stress-busting massages in an employee questionnaire. The sign-up sheet for the massages is booked this week and there is a waiting list, says Carla Day-Reiner, the company’s office manager in Toronto.

 

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BY THE NUMBERS


22 per cent: Portion of workers with access to an employer provided assistance plan who have used it to get help with a personal problem.

80 per cent: Portion of Canadian human resource workers who say employee mental health issues have increased in past three years.

15 per cent: Portion of Canadians who suffer moderate or severe seasonal depression in winter.

20 per cent: Portion of U.S. employees who say the downturn has had a negative effect on their mental health.

33 per cent: Portion who say their stress level on the job has risen in past year.

 

Sources: Canadian Mental Health Association; Desjardins Financial Security; Mercer Canada; Adecco USA

 

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