Covid and Christmas: supporting your people's wellbeing

In this episode of the Acas Podcast, we ask what managers can do to support their people with Christmas 2020 looking very different this year.

Robbie Hurley is joined by:

  • Francoise Woolley, Acas head of mental health and wellbeing
  • Susan Raftery, Acas workplace adviser

We discuss:

  • what's unique about this time of year for our wellbeing
  • why leave, keeping in touch and (remote) Christmas parties matter
  • what to do if you think senior managers will not support Christmas fun

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Episode notes

Read our advice on:

Find out more from our mental health resources during covid-19 (coronavirus).

Watch our webinar on managing mental health (for managers).

Talk to an Acas adviser about your workplace challenge


Robbie Hurley: Hello, and welcome to this edition of the Acas podcast. I'm Robbie Hurley, media manager here at Acas. And this is the second part of the Acas Podcast on resilience and wellbeing. And this week, we'll be looking at what makes this time of year a bit different, maybe more difficult for some, with a particular look at what managers can do to help themselves and to help their staff at this time of year. And so today, I'm lucky to be joined by Francoise Woolley, our head of mental health and wellbeing and Susan Raftery, a senior adviser here Acas. Welcome both.

Francoise Woolley: Hello.

Susan Raftery: Hello.

Robbie: So how are we getting on? Middle of December we’re in, are we getting into the Christmas spirit?

Francoise: I just can't believe how quickly it's come. It's just sort of crept up very quickly.

Robbie: I know! We had our team Christmas party the other day. And it was all remote, obviously. And I think I had a cup of tea, and we did a quiz. I think that's definitely the least I've drank for a Christmas team meeting.

Susan: It's a bit different this year isn't it? Definitely.

Robbie: It is very different. So I mean, we're talking about resilience. And obviously, it's something that's important all throughout the year. But it kind of seems to be something that comes up particularly around maybe the Christmas holidays or winter time. And so what makes this time of year different in terms of resilience? In particular, obviously 2020 has been a bit of a different year. So what in particular might have made it different for this year Francoise?

Francoise: Ordinarily I think it can be quite difficult to be motivated at this time of year. And I think you know, especially with the climate that we're in. Whether you're a frontline worker and you're working relentlessly, or whether you're remote working and you feel chained to your desk, our resilience has really been tested this year. And our motivational levels are definitely – I'm noticing from speaking to people – are definitely dwindling. That's really tricky at the moment, motivation levels. And of course, managers, they need staff to be engaged and working productively. One other thing that is difficult at this time of year is finances really. People are worried about overspending around Christmas time, going all out to get presents, decorations, etc. But of course now in the current climate, households will have been impacted, would have had reduced income, job losses, and all those kind of things that are going to be really contributing to financial concerns and worries.

Robbie: Absolutely. Susan, I know we were speaking a bit before, not on the podcast, about people sort of feeling Christmas can be a bit of a pressured time and trying to make it a particularly special one because of everything that's happened this year. Is that something that you've heard about and spoken about. Do you think it's putting extra pressure on people?

Susan: I think there's always that pressure to have a perfect Christmas. But I think even more so now. Certainly, I've spoken to people who are very conscious of, for example, their children might have been in and out of school. So, parents are now thinking, well, we need to make Christmas extra special. But of course, it's very difficult. And parents aren't having, or any of us aren't necessarily having that line between work and home. So those people who are still working from home, are maybe looking around and thinking ‘oh, my goodness, I've got to get the tree up’. And there feels like all that additional pressure to make it perfect.

But of course, fortunately, a lot of people are still working. And it's quite difficult to, as I say draw that line, if you've been working in your home office or at your kitchen table for all day, and then you log off and then you're thinking I've got to decorate the entire house. So I think it's a much harder time this year than normal. And as Francoise said, there's the additional issues around uncertainty, whether it's financial, whether it's job security. One of the things as well, I think when we had the first lockdown, we all thought it was going to be relatively temporary. As time has gone on, certainly what I think we're all seeing is people's resilience is taking a bit of a beating because people are just thinking, I don't know when this is going to end, this is going to keep going. And although there is optimism around the vaccine, I think it is quite difficult for some people to self-motivate because this is stretching out a lot longer than they expected.

Robbie: Definitely. I think on a personal level that I completely agree with what you said, in terms of the second lockdown becoming a bit more difficult because it was you could almost see the beginning of the end and then it felt like it was coming back again to a different time and the resilience was definitely challenged. And one of the things that I noticed then was that during the first lockdown I had a week’s holiday planned. And I think sort of April time I cancelled it, because I didn't know what to do and whether I should take leave. And then now, I think that's another pressure around this time of year is about people taking leave. A lot of people might have delayed it, might be worried as you're saying about financial pressures about holding on to their job. And maybe you're unsure whether to take leave at this time of year.

So might seem like a bit of a facile question, but why do you think it's important to take leave? And is it a difficult time for managers trying to manage that? Is it a difficult conversation to have with their staff may be asking them to take leave, maybe they've noticed that some people are a bit burned out, but maybe they're not taking leave because they’re saving it because they want to go away? And what do you think about that? Susan?

Susan: I think you're absolutely right. I think we all did it early on, we thought, well, we'll just cancel some of our leave, I can't go anywhere, I'll save my leave up. And for managers, now they're looking at situations, and good managers should be thinking, hang on a second, I've got a member of staff who maybe hasn't taken any time off for nine months. Now, even if people can't go anywhere, they should be encouraged to take their leave, they need breaks away from their screens or their workplace. And really, it's for managers to use all those skills that they almost certainly have already. So, having open and frank discussions with staff, pointing out if they've noticed that their staff might be struggling a little bit, it can be really hard for managers.

But always having those conversations and pointing out what they've noticed, can help to build that relationship, the employee feels valued, as long as the manager doesn't appear to be forcing an employee to take leave, as long as they're explaining the reasons behind it. And as I say, we'd say this in any time of the year, not just particularly Christmas, not just particularly in the COVID situation that we're in. Having those conversations is probably the most important thing you can ever do to build that relationship and make sure you look after your staff well.

Francoise: It is difficult isn't it? And I think if we're talking about kind of frontline workers so to speak, it's harder for them to take the time away than perhaps if you're not in those kinds of industries. And also it's hard to find the incentive to take leave when you're restricted in terms of what you can do. But I think it's important that managers do have these conversations, we need to be thinking about prevention here.

So, we know that unless people have regular breaks, they don't have the opportunity to recharge, they are at risk of developing poor mental and physical health. And so, we need to give staff permission. But we also as managers, we should be clear with our staff that we have a duty of care.

So managers have a duty of care to make sure that their staff have adequate breaks, we have regulations around this. Working time regulations and they're there for a reason. So, it's really important to have those open and honest conversations.

And it's also about kind of having those conversations with staff around, why they might not be taking leave. They may feel that there's a pressure that they have to be at work, they may feel that they will let their colleagues down if they don't take breaks. But then managers need to have very transparent, open, honest conversations about that. And some of that might be about giving them permission to take that time away, because in the long run, that's going to be a lot better for them.

And if they aren't kind of frontline workers, and obviously frontline workers still need to have a break. But if they can't have a break immediately, there needs to be some time allocated where they have those periods to have that respite away from what they're doing.

Robbie: So, it's a lot about knowing your staff.

Francoise: Yes, absolutely. It's all it. I mean, all good management is about knowing your staff, knowing what individual situations are impacting them, all the things that we were talking about before in terms of how people are feeling with their motivation, any financial worries or concerns around workload, is all about kind of knowing your staff really. And I think part of this is just asking reasons why people aren't taking annual leave and making it clear that it is important that they do.

I think the other thing I was going say is that, we talked about pre COVID, we talked about presenteeism quite a lot. We talked about people being at work when they're not well enough, and the reasons that they might be doing that. And that's often because of it could be financial, it could be because of work pressures and not wanting to let the team down. But we know that that will be happening even more so now, we're in this current climate, whether your frontline working or whether your remote working, it might be that we have digital presenteeism, and people needing to be feeling like they need to be at their desk, but we need to make sure that people are having those breaks.

Robbie: I think that's a really important point. As well as you know, I think it's something we've all found maybe not taking the sort of natural time away from, whether it be your desk or whatever your sort of workplace is now things have changed. And I think, particularly December can be an interesting time for that, because you tend to have staff parties when if you work in an office or other type of workplace, there's a slightly different atmosphere, you maybe see your chief executive in a silly Santa hat, or singing karaoke and stuff like that. So, in terms of those things, what are the sort of small things like that we might be able to do that managers can maybe suggest to help their staff? And how important do you think those things are, for example doing digital Christmas parties and things like that?

Susan: I think it's really important. I think good managers have been doing this throughout the year anyway, so whether it's zoom coffee mornings or zoom quizzes. But I think it's really important at this time of year not to forget about that. And however it's arranged and I've certainly seen lots of really good things that have been done. So I've seen somebody doing just a walk where actually everybody was in a different part of the country, or a different geographical location. And they just went out with their phones and had a bit of a chat and swapped photos of where they were, or having a bit of a, as I say, at half four in the afternoon, maybe right everybody stopped working, and you can all sit in front of your screen, unfortunately. But whether it's a cup of tea, or a glass of wine, or whatever you're comfortable with, and again making sure that it's inclusive.

Some people I know even if they are working remotely, are less comfortable on screens, even if it's just an old-fashioned phone call just for a bit of a chat. But I think there are a lot of really innovative ideas out there. I know one organisation have arranged all their staff have had wreaths making kits for Christmas wreaths sent to them by a florist.

Again, it depends on the people and what they're comfortable with. But just thinking about ways of including people. And I think Francoise's point about the e-presenteeism is a real concern, that we're not drawing that line between work and home. And especially so at this time of year, as you said, a lot of organisations will have people finishing slightly early to go and get ready for their Christmas meal out. That's not necessarily there. So, thinking about how we can replace it.

But again, just having a chat with your staff about what they'd like to do, because the last thing you want to do is put people under pressure to ‘you've got to be on zoom at five o'clock this Friday So, we can all wear a silly hat’. And noticing if people are uncomfortable with that, then what other things can we do that can include them so they do feel relaxed and comfortable. And say send them a packet of chocolate through the post, for example, just thinking about other ways of doing it and giving people permission to do that.

So normally a lot of organisations will say, yes you can finish half an hour earlier. Or you can come in half an hour later for example. I think the worry is that that managers might feel that senior managers will say, well you're working. Well actually we still need a bit of downtime, we still need to be a little bit silly for an hour or so. It works really, really well.

Robbie: I agree. Absolutely. I'd like to pick up on a couple of those points that you made, and put them to Francoise, well about the fact that managers knowing their staff is really important as we've already discussed. But then again, managers that aren't sort of in senior management can tend to feel a bit squeezed at times and given the presenteeism given how busy everyone feels they are. Francoise, how do you think a manager can cope with that if they're thinking already how am I supposed to organise a digital remote Christmas party? And while speaking to senior management who aren't sure whether this is actual work or not? Is there any advice that you can give to them?

Francoise: It comes down to that if we look after our people and we look after their health or wellbeing, they are going to be more productive. So if we invest time into supporting individuals, into things like as Susan said giving permission to have these social interactions, because we know that's important, then we will get more out of our staff.

I wonder whether sometimes it's about less about the time, but the recognising that it's important. So I used to say when I was working with organisations pre COVID. When I came across, for example, HR managers who said this is all good, and we want to support health and wellbeing and we want to put in place these initiatives and we know it'll help our staff, but how do we sell this to our senior leaders? How do we sell this to the MD? And I think sometimes it's about talking their language. So often I would say actually, it might be worth looking at some of the research, which looks at the cost of mental ill health to employers and going back to the Farmer and Stevenson’s report, the thriving at work report in 2017. And there's lots of figures that are quoted there, costing UK employers 33 to 42 billion pounds I think it is, the cost of mental ill health is.

Sometimes it’s about speaking language and thinking a bit more locally, looking at the impact of sickness absence or whatever it might be in your organisation. It's really just thinking about how much time does it take to have as part of a team meeting half an hour of a social event, we know reward and recognition motivates our employees. So, it could be a silly award ceremony or something, recognising the things that people have done well so those kind of things are really, really important. It's speaking the language of the senior leaders, but it's also just trying to put these things in place that don't take much time. And then you can see the rewards that it will bring in terms of your staff feeling valued and recognised and all the rest of it really.

Robbie: Yes, I think from a personal experience, I think that's very important as well, because it does feel like December time is kind of a unique time for camaraderie or bonding. Not sure the best language there to use, talking about working with your employees. But it does seem like it is a unique time where you can sort of develop relationships with people that maybe take you slightly out of the day to day work life, and then allows you to take that onto another level, can help you with your work and with your productivity.

Francoise: And Robbie, can I also say that actually we've got to bear in mind that some people the only interactions they have at the moment are people in work. If somebody is living by themselves and loneliness can be a real issue at this time of year.

So anything we can do to support employees who might be feeling lonely, to feel a bit more connected, I think is really important to think about as well. And there's a lot of stigma, I think around loneliness, but an awful lot of people do feel lonely. And I think managers should be raising awareness around that and speaking to their staff about it, and ensuring they develop a culture where peers can support one another as well.

Susan: I think that's a really good point. Because of course, we've been talking a lot about managers and them picking up the signs of their team, and they should be able to do that. But sometimes they will miss things. Whereas if you are comfortable with your colleagues and your peers, and you have that relationship then sometimes people will be able to say, I've just noticed that a colleague was a little bit quieter than normal. She's normally the life and soul. So, it is very much everybody looking out for everybody else. And if there are concerns, having the confidence to say, is everything ok? And that camaraderie and that bonding, I'm much more likely to feel able to say that to somebody that I've got that relationship with, how are you doing? Is everything ok? And as Francoise said, breaking down that stigma. So, I would ask somebody if I knew they had a bad back or a sore foot. So actually, just saying, just checking you’re ok is completely normal regardless of how people are.

Robbie: And in this time of working, especially with remote working, what are those sorts of things that the managers can look out for?

Susan: I think one of the really important things is the changes in people. Some people are quiet and that's absolutely fine, but it's picking up on they are quieter than usual. They are more withdrawn than usual. And having the confidence to ask how people are. I know that some managers are very reluctant to ask, as Francoise mentioned the loneliness situation. We may not know about our staff’s personal situations and you're not prying. You’re just checking they’re ok. So how are things? How are things at home, for example just asking quite general questions. And it's not making people tell you, but just so people know that you're there to support them. And as I say, it's the differences so I'm not turning my camera on at all. Whereas maybe a couple of months ago, I was quite comfortable doing that. Am I difficult to get hold of by phone? Am I logging on extremely early, and logging off very late? Am I sending emails at midnight? Some people do all of those things. But again, it's the things that change, this isn't like them to do that. Those are the sorts of things that would be flagging up concerns for me.

Francoise: I would agree with that. So lots of different signs there. Are you finding the individuals are not turning up to meetings? Are you finding that individual’s performance is dipping? And all these signs might not be necessarily an indicator that someone is suffering with their mental ill health, but they’re signs that should trigger a conversation from a manager. So actually, is somebody's not performing because they are struggling with their mental health, or is it because they're juggling childcare, and working full time or caring for somebody and working full time? So we don't know until we have those conversations, and we really get to kind of know what is going on with our staff, and reassure them that we are there to support them. And that's why we're having that conversation.

Susan: And I think not forgetting about the people who've always seemed to really be able to cope and really be resilient as well. Because I think there’s a lot of very good managers who will know, for example if their staff have had difficulties in the past or have had some episodes of mental ill health. But those people that maybe have always seemed very on top of things, very comfortable, very resilient, not forgetting about them, oh they're always fine. I don't need to worry about them. Has something changed? Are there differences?

Francoise: I think that's a really good point. Because what we're finding, 2020 has been a very difficult year, and what we're finding that even the most resilient of people have been tested during this time. So absolutely, we need to check in with all of our staff in the same way, and just make sure that they're ok.

Robbie: Ok, well thank you so much Francoise and Susan for a really good session today on the podcast. I personally found that really enlightening and learned a lot. So hopefully, our listeners did too. I think given what we've been talking about, given where we are at the end of 2020 and going into this Christmas break, the things that I really took away from that is thinking about your staff, the people that you're working with, and that everyone's situation is very different. And how important it is, even though you are maybe working remotely and working away from each other, getting to know each other and staying in contact. And remembering that we're all in this together and that contact with each other can help and speaking to each other can really, really help. So, thanks again for all of your chat with me today.

This has been the Acas podcast, there are useful links in the episode notes. If you're facing any of the problems or other complex problems in your workplace please feel free to get in touch for a free chat.

Thank you very much for listening.