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The start of a new year can feel very different for everyone.
While many look forward to it as a time to celebrate and make a fresh start, others may be looking back at a year of unaccomplished goals, loss, grief, and anxiety about what the future holds.
Along with a host of other compounding factors, this can lead to New Year’s blues.
What are New Year’s blues?
New Year's blues—sometimes referred to as January or winter blues—is an increased level of depression that occurs right after the holidays.
This can include feelings of sadness, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, remorse, and having difficulties with focus. Often, these symptoms are triggered by the emotional, physical, and financial expectations of the holiday season, starting as early as November.
Weather patterns also have an impact. An estimated 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This makes sense because we get less light during fall and winter, and don’t spend as much time outside.
For others, New Year’s blues are similar to post-vacation blues: the “let down” of returning to the same routine after an exciting time of getting away, attending parties, and being more social.
The difference between diagnosable depression and New Year’s blues
In general, how someone feels can be similar (or even the same), but New Year’s blues are shorter in duration and intensity. They may come and go, but commonly lead to persistently feeling down. With some effort, they will go away within a few days.
Clinical depression is diagnosed by a professional, and markers include feeling a set of symptoms for at least two weeks. If you're not sure, it's best to make an appointment with a therapist.
If one of your employees isn’t sure if they’re experiencing New Year’s blues or depression, encourage them to make an appointment with a therapist.
The impact on the workplace
As with other situational depression, New Year’s blues have a significant impact on the workplace. It can lead to increased absenteeism and higher levels of substance use, which interferes with relationships and decreases performance, productivity, and overall workplace satisfaction.
It’s important to understand the contributing factors, recognize the signs, and effectively support employees who are struggling.
Stressors that cause difficulty coping with a new year
Feeling let down
There is a lot of excitement and anticipation surrounding the start of a new year. New Year’s Eve rolls around, and we may find ourselves on the brink of high expectations for “the best year yet,” “a fresh start,” and a “new year, new me”.
This can create a lot of pressure, and there’s no magical change that happens with the calendar reset.
Returning to our regular routine after the celebrations are over can feel disappointing and even frustrating that there hasn’t been a bigger change.
Many of us get together with family and friends during the holidays, but this isn’t the case for everyone. Some people spend this season alone, and experience increased loneliness.
For over half of Americans, feelings like sadness and loneliness increase during this season, and 38% say their stress increases.
Those who do spend time with family and friends over the holidays are not exempt from feelings of loneliness. They may also experience an increased sense of isolation in the new year, when family and friends return home, or they travel back to their home, away from family.
The holidays can also be particularly difficult for the elderly and those grieving. The thought of beginning another year without their loved one can be overwhelming. Even if it’s been a number of years since their loss, the grief cycle can be experienced over and over again.
Resolutions have long been a New Year’s tradition, but when they’re not realistic, they can become a source of stress.
If we didn’t keep last year’s goals or haven’t made any significant changes in our life, it’s easy to feel a sense of failure, which can lead to winter blues. Setting goals without a clear action plan for how to achieve them can also cause stress and anxiety.
There is so much energy spent throughout the holidays—preparing, prioritizing our time, traveling, and hosting—that increases our stress and anxiety levels.
There’s pressure to attend parties that can lead to a higher intake of alcohol, which then impacts our sleep and the overindulgence of food that contributes to weight gain.
More than half of Americans drink more during the holidays, which can disrupt sleep cycles and affect sleep quality—impacting mood, concentration, and decision-making abilities as a result.
Employees may take vacation time during the holidays, but that’s not necessarily restful. Many are busier than ever, seeing family and friends. Without a proper mental break, getting back into the swing of things can be a daunting task.
Finances are a sensitive issue surrounding the holidays, and a contributing factor to New Year’s blues. The expectations we put on ourselves and feel by others in terms of gift giving alone can be overwhelming.
Feeling the pressure of spending too much or too little, and budgeting for the new year all add stress—and then those credit card bills need to be paid in January.
Recognizing New Year’s blues in the workplace
If an employee is dealing with New Year’s blues, the signs are similar to situational depression. You may notice:
- An uncharacteristic drop in productivity
- Increased absences
- Withdrawal or isolation
- Changes in mood
- A change in social interaction and relationships within the workplace
- Increased substance abuse
- Lack of coping skills
- Loss of interest in everyday activities
How HR and People leaders can support employees
There are several ways to effectively support employees who are dealing with New Year’s blues. After familiarizing yourself with the signs, take these steps to cultivate a supportive work environment:
- Approach employees who seem to be struggling in private, leading with empathy—not annoyance by absenteeism and lack of productivity
- Talk about New Year’s blues and mental health struggles to normalize these conversations and create a safe space for them to happen
- Ensure employees have psychological safety, and are not being exposed to harassment or discrimination
- Offer a comprehensive mental health benefit, with access to a diverse network of providers
Here are six strategies you can provide to help them overcome the holiday blues:
- Encourage them to focus on activities they enjoy
- Offer distractions to help break up the the negative thinking patterns
- Focus on their achievements, strengths, and what they can build on
- Have them reflect on what would bring them greater purpose, meaning, joy, and connection
- Encourage exercise—it’s proven to boost our moods in just 10 -15 minutes
- If negative thinking doesn’t go away after a week or two, suggest therapy to help them through their thought process
Cultivating a healthier culture
If any of your employees are experiencing winter blues, it can lead to poor performance, lost productivity, increased absenteeism, and reduced job satisfaction. By taking steps to ensure employees feel seen and heard, you can boost their self-esteem and their productivity.
It’s also impactful for other employees to see their manager taking care of a co-worker who is struggling. This demonstrates a level of empathy and care that can increase work satisfaction and psychological safety, and create a healthier team culture overall.
It also begins building a structure of preventative care in the workplace and creating space for conversations about mental health throughout the year. This helps reduce the stigma and ensures employees don’t have to struggle with New Year’s blues alone.
Read the blog to learn more about clinical depression, and how to support employees in crisis.