If it's been tough getting out of bed for work the first couple of weeks of 2006, just wait. It could get worse.
Employee assistance providers (EAP) say the end of January begins one of the busiest times of the year for EAP call centres. It's also the time when more people find themselves in real crisis than any other point in the year.
"It's an accumulation of things," says Estelle Morrison, director of strategic solutions for Ceridian Lifeworks, the EAP branch of HR firm Ceridian. "People (employers and employees) need to take preventive action before this volcano hits."
The forces leading up to this eruptive period are numerous, and include:
* Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which affects women eight times more than men.
* Maxed-out holiday credit cards arriving in the mail.
* Unrealistic New Year's resolutions falling by the wayside.
* Playing "catchup" after a more relaxed December.
* Companies unveiling new strategies that often bring change and stress.
It's also a time of personal reflection, when separation and divorce is common, adds Gabor Gellert, national manager, trauma services for corporate wellness provider FGIworld. "After the holidays, people tend to make a lot of serious decisions about their jobs and their personal relationships," Gellert says.
"People tend to put off dealing with a lot over the holidays ... holding this romantic notion that the season will fix things."
But then reality strikes. Problems aren't solved, and instead, the imperfections in our lives are magnified. People tell themselves they can't go through another year in a dysfunctional relationship, or they have to find a more satisfying job.
It leads to cries for help at EAP call centres. The volume of calls in January and February is second only to the late September/October time period, when people struggle with the return to work after summer holidays. But EAP call centres such as FGIworld say more people are in "crisis" in January and February than any other time.
What can be done? Start with exercise and exposure to daylight. "It seems so obvious, but a regimen of exercise is extremely useful for people suffering from depression, or the winter blues," Gellert says.
Morrison agrees. One of the best things employers and employees can do during the cold grey months of winter, she says, is to go outside for a noon-hour walk.
"Companies have to put more energy into promoting this kind of activity," Morrison says. "They seem to organize all their outside activities, lunch-time run clubs or other activities, during warmer months when people are more naturally outside anyway."
She adds that while seasonal affective disorder affects two to four per cent of the population as a full-blown clinical depression, another 10 to 15 per cent is estimated to suffer from SAD, although they fell below the clinical threshold.
It's believed that one factor leading to SAD is fewer daylight hours in winter. While SAD typically affects people in their 20s to mid-50s (the average workforce) it is not recognized by most employers, Morrison says.
And many employees, who feel they will be stigmatized, won't disclose to their employer what they're suffering.
"If you have SAD, you know it will go away in spring," she says. "So you might have a miserable winter, but bite your upper lip and just get through. But there are some who can't."
Morrison and Gellert say employers and employees need to be aware of the winter blues and take action to help prevent or lessen the season's affect. They suggest:
* Open the office blinds. Have as much light coming into the workplace as possible.
* Don't stay indoors all the time.
* Take a daylight walk. Build a snowman on the weekend with your children.
* If employers have benefits coverage or EAP programs, they need to promote them. And they should forward information sheets on what to expect in the winter about issues such as SAD.
* Employers need to train managers how to speak to employees and provide support. Too many supervisors either don't feel it's their place to say anything, or try to act as a confidant. Neither approach is useful.
* Bring a yoga instructor or fitness trainer into the office in January or February to motivate staff. Or plan an office outing, a skating party or bowling tournament at month's end. Remember, after the holiday season, employees don't have much to look forward to for months.
* Employees should schedule mini-vacations year-round or simply say, "I'm not working this weekend.”
Morrison says people take vacations when they are exhausted rather than building in three- or four-day restorative breaks during the year.
She also suggests that if people take a longer break, they need to give themselves a day off at home before returning to work.
"Know that the first day back is going to be stressful," she says. "Prepare mentally and say, 'Maybe I can pack a good healthy lunch, and plan to go for a walk on my break. I know that I won't get to everything on my inbox, so how can I manage the critical issue(s) before I go in?' " Finally, Morrison and Gellert say, employers should "ease" the workplace back into a normal flow in January and watch for changes in their employees' behaviour.
Employers and employees must realize that after any holiday, let alone the high expectations of the Christmas season, there's a normal transition process that occurs. After spending extra time with family and then returning to work, people do reflect on what's important.
"It's a normal transitional process that we all go through," Gellert says. "We feel the meaning of the moments with our loved ones and friends, and then we go back to work. That's not always fun."
After a normal transition period, perhaps up to a week, if people are struggling with things such as getting to work on time or completing assignments - when they haven't had this problem before - managers should do some gentle probing and ask what they can do to help support the employee.
The individual may be struggling under an overwhelming amount of work and burning the midnight oil because he or she is trying to make up for the holidays, something the manager can help with, Gellert says.
Or it may be an accumulation of issues that an employee assistance program can help with: Counselling for a failed relationship, debt management or a drug addiction, to name just a few.
In all cases, it's better to help an employee before the issue becomes a crisis, Gellert says - before they truly can't get out of bed.
(Mike Dempster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)