January is the cruellest 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.
Counselling 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.