Blue Monday – How to check on and improve staff mental health

Posted on January 17, 2022
Posted by Marion Kennedy

Although not scientifically proven, the third Monday of January is often referred to as the most depressing day of the year and has been coined ‘Blue Monday’. Factors thought to contribute to people being more down on this day include increased debt from Christmas spending, cold weather, post-holiday blues, and failure to stick to their New Year’s resolutions. Feelings of anxiety and depression may also be exacerbated this year due to high numbers of COVID cases and uncertainty around how the pandemic will continue to unfold.  

This Blue Monday we’ve rounded up some ways to check in on, and improve, your staff’s mental health. Remember that although there may be more publicity around mental health on Blue Monday, it’s crucial to take steps to protect your staff’s mental health all year round. Minimising risks to mental health should form part of your regular health and safety risk assessments and policies. 

Reducing mental health risks at work

How can I reduce the risk of work-related stress, depression or anxiety to my staff?

As you are likely aware, you have a legal obligation to carry out health and safety risk assessments to identify risks to the health and safety of your staff (including remote workers). As part of conducting your risk assessments, you should consider risks to staff mental health, identify ways of eliminating or reducing these risks and take the appropriate actions. 

Our template risk assessments suggest ways to minimise health and safety risks to staff, including risks to their mental health. Some suggested ways to protect staff members’ mental health include:

  • making sure your staff are not overworked by consulting them about, or giving them control over, the pace of their work and providing regular breaks;
  • ensuring staff know how to ask for help and support from management; 
  • making sure staff have a clear understanding of their role and providing regular, constructive feedback; 
  • establishing and enforcing policies for dealing with negative behaviours like bullying (you can find template policies in our Staff Handbook); 
  • keeping staff informed about when, how and why you are making changes to your business which will affect them, so that they are not surprised by unexpected change; and
  • having informal discussions and regular check-ins with staff to assess their mood and talk through how they approach their tasks.

The risks you identify, and steps to take, will depend on your workplace and industry. It’s important to consult with your staff when undertaking your risk assessment, and not treat it as simply a ‘box ticking exercise’. Your staff are often in the best position to provide suggestions for minimising health and safety risks for their particular roles. 

Do I need to take extra steps to combat the risks of stress, depression and anxiety in remote workers?

Yes. There are extra concerns for remote workers as they can easily become isolated. Some additional steps to consider taking to minimise these risks include: 

  • asking remote workers to come in regularly (eg once a week) to stay up to date with the business and other staff; 
  • ensuring you include them in work socials; 
  • providing IT support and ensuring they have proper IT systems to keep in contact with the rest of the workforce during the day; and
  • checking in regularly to assess their mood and talk through how they approach their tasks.

This list is not exhaustive – you must keep an open mind to any risks specific to the particular work your staff are doing remotely. You can use General risk assessment for remote workers as a guide to complete your risk assessment for remote workers. It’s also important to ensure that remote workers’ workstations are set up correctly at home, as aches, pains and other physical health problems can make stress and anxiety worse. 


Staff well-being during COVID-19

How can I support staff wellbeing at the workplace during COVID-19?

HSE recommends the following ways of supporting staff members’ mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic:

  • talk with them about any specific concerns they have about returning to work, and how you are addressing the risks. You should share your COVID risk assessment with staff including actions you are taking (and if you have more than 50 employees you should publish your risk assessment on your website);
  • consider what online resources may be available to help staff look after their mental health;
  • let staff know that they can talk to you at any time and that you will take action to address their concerns;
  • explain to vulnerable staff the steps you are taking to protect them; and
  • keep in touch with staff working remotely, so they still feel part of the workforce .

In addition to the steps suggested above, you could consider further practical measures such as:

  • helping people to avoid public transport, for example by increasing car and bike parking facilities if possible;
  • allowing staff to work from home (even where not required under coronavirus restrictions);
  • staggering work hours or shifts to enable staff to avoid congestion or busy times.

If a staff member will not return to work when they are required to, you could insist that they take holiday or unpaid leave (although you do not have to). Ultimately, staff not coming in to work without a valid reason is a disciplinary matter. For further guidance about how to handle these situations, see Returning to the workplace after coronavirus


Sickness absence due to work-related stress

What should I do if staff members take too much sick leave due to work-related stress?

Where staff members take unacceptable levels of sickness absence due to work-related stress, it is important that you can show that you did what you could to resolve the issue before taking more drastic action (such as dismissing the employee). 

Note that you need to have a separate and careful process for dealing with staff who are pregnant or have a disability

Appropriate steps to take are as follows:

1. Monitor the absences 

You should monitor and keep a record of the amount and timing of sick leave taken by each staff member.

It can help to have a sickness absence policy which specifies that such a meeting will take place after a certain number or level of absences, in order to ensure consistency between staff members; see Staff handbook and policies for a template you can use.

Note that it is very important all records you keep are stored in accordance with your data protection obligations. Records relating to a staff member’s health are sensitive personal data and have special requirements relating to them.

2. Discuss the issue with the staff member and consider solutions

If you notice that a staff member is taking frequent sick leave, you should arrange a private meeting to discuss the matter.

3. Consider disciplinary action

Even where the absences are a result of genuine ill-health if, despite taking the steps set out above, the absences continue and are disruptive to your business and other staff, you are likely to be justified in treating them as a disciplinary matter.

In this case you should notify the staff member in writing and arrange a formal disciplinary meeting (see Invitation to attend meeting to discuss sickness absence for a template letter you can use). For more information about conducting an effective disciplinary process, including specifically in the context of sickness absence, see Taking disciplinary action, and for a template disciplinary procedure, see Staff handbook and policies.

The content in this article is up to date at the date of publishing. The information provided is intended only for information purposes, and is not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Sparqa Legal’s Terms of Use apply.