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Will Christmas Make Your Employees Mentally Unwell?

15 November 2016

Will Christmas Make Your Employees Mentally Unwell?


Christmas is traditionally seen as an event to be spent around loved ones. However, in addition to the 500,000 elderly people due to spend Christmas by themselves, another 3.5 million Brits are expected to spend Christmas day alone.

For some this will be through choice and they would argue that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. But for those employees affected by bereavement, relationship breakdown, strained family relationships or money issues separating them from others, the run-up to Christmas can seriously affect their mental health, causing them to feel lonely, depressed, anxious and isolated.

Every year, we get calls from employees who feel too ashamed to admit to their colleagues that they’ll be spending Christmas alone. We hear as well from bereaved individuals who thought they’d gone through the worst of their grief, only to be confronted by unexpected feelings of anger and despair that someone they love won’t be there for Christmas.

Left unsupported, these individuals are at risk of becoming tearful, withdrawn or snappy at work, or even calling in sick if they can’t face being around colleagues making happy plans.

Fortunately, there are a number of simple things that HR and managers can do to identify and support those most affected so that they don’t feel so isolated.


Become aware of changes in behaviour

Even if they try to hide their feelings, the emotional strain of feeling isolated at this time of year often makes itself physically visible. Employees in emotional distress will exhibit clear changes in behaviour, ranging from looking tired, as sad feelings keep them awake at night, to becoming noticeably stressed, anxious, distracted, forgetful or even aggressive. If they’re embroiled in ongoing family arguments, managers might notice an increase in the number of personal calls being made, resulting in the employee becoming noticeably stressed.

For those struggling with a painful bereavement or younger people who simply don’t have anyone close, it might simply be more than they can bear to be around people making happy plans to spend time with loved ones when their loved one is no longer there or because they’re feeling very alone in the world. They too might become snappy with colleagues, as they struggle to deal with their emotions, or choose to isolate themselves further by calling in sick, withdrawing into themselves and becoming less social.

By looking out for these changes in behaviour, managers can more easily identify which individuals are going through some sort of emotional crisis.


Empower managers to show the caring side of the organization

Although managers might be aware which individuals are under some kind of emotional strain, a typical response might be to ignore any obvious changes in behaviour for fear of seeming intrusive.

It’s therefore useful for HR to lead any initiative by proactively contacting managers to look out for these warning signs and also to reflect on which members of their team might have had a difficult year and be heading towards a difficult Christmas.

At the same time, HR needs to empower managers to show the caring side of the organisation by giving them clear information on support services available. HR should also encourage managers to respond to any changes in behaviour by asking them to gently take distressed employees to one side to ask them if they’re okay.

At the same time, it’s important to clarify that it isn’t the manager’s role to try to solve the employee’s problems for them or provide any kind of mental health advice. Instead we recommend developing managers to adopt a five-step approach for helping employees to come up with their own solution to make things better. This includes understanding your role in relation to supporting an employee, listening, summarising, and empowering the employee’s problem solving skills to define a clear action plan.


Case Study: Jane decides it’s okay not to spend Christmas with her daughter

When Jane started to become tearful at work, instead of dismissing her feelings, her manager took her into a private room and asked if there was anything upsetting her because she didn’t seem her usual self.

Jane broke down and told her manager she was very sad because her daughter wouldn’t be spending Christmas with her, because she wanted to spend it with her boyfriend’s family instead. Although her manager’s initial instinct was to say she should just have them over for Boxing Day instead, and that children grow up and these things happen, she reigned herself in and instead summarised what Jane was feeling, saying: “So you’re going to be spending Christmas alone because your daughter wants to go to her boyfriend’s family and that’s making you feel sad.” Jane gulped a big “Yes”, then gave a deep breath as having shared this burden had already started to make her feel better.

Next her manager helped her to self-solve by giving her the time and space needed to explore her situation by asking her questions to pull out more information, such as:

- “How do you feel about spending the day alone?”

- “Is there anyone else you can spend the day with?”

- “What would make you feel better about this situation?”

While continuing to resist the temptation to jump in with advice, the manager went on to help Jane create her own action-plan, which surprisingly consisted of accepting her daughter’s decision but asking if she would be prepared to spend Christmas Eve with her. Then asking her own sister if she could spend Christmas day with them, as she loved seeing her little grand-nieces and would be very excited to spend the day with young children.

A few days later, the manager checked in with Jane again, and what could have easily spiralled into a messy family situation had been quickly resolved as per her action plan.

The manager followed a five stage approach point support plan where listening, summarising and empowering the employee's problem solving skills to define a clear action plan are key tools for enabling employees to resolve difficult issues that affect the work place.


Put people in touch with additional support

Sometimes the challenges people face are far too complex to be resolved with a little joint action-planning. In such cases, the manager also needs to be able to direct the employee to additional support services, such as their GP, free national helpline or the organisation’s own Occupational Health department or Employee Assistance Programme.

For example, after kindly enquiring how another withdrawn and tired employee was feeling in the run-up to Christmas, another manager found out that they were struggling with domestic violence and didn’t want to be with their abusive partner for another year.

The manager still used the five-step process (Role, Listen, Summarise, Self-Solve, Action Plan) to provide emotional support, without offering advice or becoming emotionally involved, to help them start to self-solve their situation. Only this time, the manager also took the additional step of putting the employee in touch with the police and the Employee Assistance Programme, so that they could get the emotional, financial and legal support needed to create a safe exit plan for the employee and their children.

By giving the employee time off during working hours to plan their exit and storing their passport and other important documents at work, their manager was able to successfully help to resolve the situation - without having to get personally involved.

Note: whatever issue a distressed employee is dealing with, it’s important to remember that as an employer you can play a valuable role in helping them to resolve any issues causing them distress or limiting their ability to perform at work. Christmas, and the pressure of expectation put on people at this time of year, often causes employees to question or re-evaluate their life, so it’s worth showing the caring side of the organisation. Not least as failure to do so can result in increased absence and productivity issues.

How listening skills can reduce absence

When Unipart, a leading logistics and manufacturing company, put in place a strategic wellbeing strategy as part of its focus on employee engagement, training managers to really listen to employees became a key part of the solution.

Deborah Astles, HR Director, Corporate Responsibility and Policy for Unipart, describes how developing managers to talk to employees about any issue they were struggling with helped to bring about a significant reduction in absence.

Read the case study