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Is It the Holiday Blues - or Something More Serious?

Ah, the holidays. It's supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year and for many employees, it is. For others, however, this time of year can intensify stress and anxiety. While some of the "holiday blues" - the natural stress and anxiety of the holidays - is normal, some employees struggle with something much deeper. Use these tips to identify when an employee is managing typical holiday stress or when something much more serious might be going on.

Mental Health Is Serious Business

Mental health issues are real and they are quite common. They are the second-leading cause of absenteeism in the workforce, and one in five people say they have experienced mental health issues within the last month, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School. Anxiety disorders affect around 6% of the U.S. population at some point in life, but those disorders go undiagnosed, on average, for 5 to ten years; and 6% of employees experience symptoms of depression in any given year.

When left untreated, mental health issues lead to increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, safety concerns, higher employee turnover, lowered employee morale, and increased risk of other illness.

Is it the "Holiday Blues" - or Something More?

Although the holiday blues can be experienced by anyone, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people living with mental illness experience significant stress at the close of the year.

It is important to help employees address their mental health, especially during the holidays. The first step in providing support is to know the signs of anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Every situation is unique, but the most common signs include:
  • Marked changes in personality
  • A sudden inability to cope with everyday problems on the job
  • Apathy
  • Extreme mood swings
  • A lack of care in grooming and dressing habits
  • Dramatic changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Expression of great fears
  • Chronic lateness and absenteeism
  • A string of missed deadlines
  • Forgetting or ignoring directives, requests, and procedures
  • Disregard for workplace safety
  • Talk of suicide
Stay Focused on Performance

It is natural to want to diagnose people with mental health issues if they display any of these symptoms, but unless you are a trained mental health professional, you are not equipped to provide a diagnosis. Rather than acting on assumptions or slapping labels on struggling employees, sit down with them and talk about the performance issues you see that stem from those symptoms.

Dealing with performance issues can be tough even when someone is not struggling with anxiety or depression. It gets even more delicate when you suspect someone is having a mental health challenge. Use these tips for a constructive, yet supportive conversation:
  • Make a plan: Outline the facts before the meeting and make sure to have specifics like dates of missed deadlines and late arrivals.

  • Stick to work-related topics: It can be tempting to ask what's going on behind the scenes, but don't. Mental health issues are very personal and even though you may care deeply about your employee, keep the conversation strictly business - unless the employee indicates they need professional help.

  • Be prepared for an emotional response: The employee may become defensive or they may have an emotional outburst of anger or sadness. Don't let your reactions mirror theirs. Stay calm and stay focused on work-related topics.

  • Involve HR: If you truly believe an employee is struggling with mental health and it's not simply holiday distractions, it is wise to have an HR rep present for the interview to buffer emotional response and ensure you're taking proper action.

  • Take constructive, supportive action. If the employee should indicate that they are, in fact, experiencing mental health issues, familiarize yourself with the proper steps in directing the employee to available resources.

    • If your organization has a mental health hotline, have a card and brochure in a desk drawer to present to them if, and only if, they bring their personal mental health issues into the conversation.

    • Always remember that mental health disorders are medical conditions, and employees have a right to privacy.
Mental Health Conditions Are Protected

Mental health issues are not controllable. A person struggling with anxiety, depression or other issues cannot simply snap their fingers and "get over it," just as someone struggling with a health issue cannot simply will themselves to be healthy. In recognition of this fact, there are legal protections for people struggling with their mental health and it is important for supervisors, managers, and leaders to get educated on the legal considerations.

Mental Health and the ADA

Mental health conditions are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As such, large companies will be required to provide employees with reasonable accommodations including flexible hours during treatment and recovery, time off for doctor's appointments, leave for hospitalization, and frequent performance feedback.

Your Human Resources department should be well versed on ADA accommodations, and managers should receive training on the ADA, as well.

Mental Health Parity

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act requires group health insurance issuers to provide non-restrictive access to mental health treatments. This means that insurers cannot treat mental health, behavioral health or substance abuse disorders any differently than other medical benefits. Copays and deductibles should apply to mental health treatment in all group plans that cover 50 or more employees.

Supporting Mental Health in Your Workplace

Many employers have wellness programs that support employees' physical health, but those programs often ignore mental health concerns. Mental health should be just as important as physical health, as they are tied together for many people. Mental health issues can lead to unhealthy weight gain or loss, smoking, substance abuse, cardiovascular issues and more. Conversely, physically healthy people are much more likely to be mentally fit as well. Regular exercise and healthy eating habits can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

Therefore, wellness plans can also be used to address mental health. These programs offer incentives for annual checkups, preventive care, and even gym and fitness programs.

If you can't create a mental health wellness program, you can still provide support. Post mental health information in the company break room along with other safety and workplace posters. Include community mental health resources, suicide prevention hotlines, and post the signs of mental illness so employees can learn what changes and signs to watch for in themselves and their co-workers. Some useful resources for employers include: Tips for the Holidays

There are simple things you can do to help keep employees engaged and focused if they are struggling with the holiday blues or even something more serious. Help your team manage stress by:
  • Volunteering: Giving back to others can be a great way for employees to take stock of the positive things in their own lives. Collect children's gifts, visit a nursing home as a group, volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen, etc.

  • Providing light therapy: Full-spectrum lamps can help people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Lack of light can deeply affect people's moods. If you can't afford lamps, take group walks to soak up some Vitamin D during the day.

  • Encouraging time off: Do an inventory of time off and if you have a use-it-or-lose-it policy, encourage people to use it, especially if it seems they are struggling.

  • Checking in on those who have suffered a loss: The holidays are hard for people who have lost a loved one in the previous year. Acknowledging you remember with a simple "I know this time of year can be hard" or "I'm thinking about you" is much appreciated.

  • Hiring temporary help: The holidays are busy for many industries and they are also peak times for vacations. Hire temporary employees to reduce stress while ensuring project deadlines are met.
Don't Keep It in the Shadows

Despite recent shifts in attitudes about mental illness and better outreach and education programs, there is still a stigma associated with mental health concerns. The best way to handle mental health issues in the workplace is to shine a light on the commonality of these issues and provide ample resources for those who may want or need help.

Include discussions of mental health in employee onboarding and training programs, and have the HR department conduct occasional mental health seminars for managers. Often, simply by talking about these issues openly, employees will recognize signs in themselves and will feel more comfortable addressing their struggles.