Woman looking out of window in the winter

Looking after your mental health in the winter months

Mental Health

18 January 2021

The winter months can have a big impact on our mental health. The shorter days and cold weather can affect our overall mood and motivation levels. It’s thought that the winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder, affects around 2 million people in the UK.1 

As well as having a negative impact on mental health, the winter months can also affect our working lives, including our productivity and motivation levels. One research study found that 30% of people said that winter negatively affects their productivity.2

Winter combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown means that it’s more important that ever to take actionable steps to look after our mental health.

So, what are the signs that your mental health may be suffering in the winter, and how can you look after your mental health?

Below, Eugene Farrell, Mental Health Lead at AXA Health, shares his tips for how to look after your mental health in the winter.

Signs that your mental health may be suffering in winter

For some people, winter can be a time when their mental health feels worse. Fewer hours of daylight, long nights, bad weather and reduced activity can all contribute to lower mood at this time of year. 

If you’ve noticed that you’re feeling a bit low, less enthusiastic or you’ve lost your sense of humour then this may indicate that you’re feeling the effects of weather. Other signs can include:

  • Irritability
  • Feelings of loneliness or despair
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling tearful
  • Feeling stressed
  • Low sex drive
  • Overeating
  • Social withdrawal

Winter can also exacerbate existing mental health problems, so it’s important to regularly check in with yourself and to pay attention to how you are feeling.

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How to look after your mental health in winter

If you think winter may be having a negative effect on you, it’s important to not dwell too much on how you’re feeling. Instead, be proactive and take some steps to help yourself to start feeling better. These can include:

Get active: One of the best things you can do is to get active. Even though the weather may not be the best, being active can really help to boost your mood. Whether that’s a gentle stroll to the park to feed the ducks, a brisk walk around the block, a bike ride or a run. Being outside and getting some natural daylight can boost your mood and help to reduce both anxiety and depression. It can be easy to put this off, particularly if the weather is cold and wet, but try to make the effort and be positive. Remember that each activity is like a little boost and can be preventative, so don’t wait until you’re feeling low to get out and get active.

Be mindful: While you’re out, be aware of your surroundings. Feel the cold, hear the crunch of the ground beneath your feet, listen to the sound of the birds, feel the fresh air as you breathe in and out. This mindful approach shifts our attention and thoughts from inside us to outside us, from what might happen to what is happening right now. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce worrying and anxiety, and just makes us feel better. While you are out and about, smile and say hello to people. It’s amazing how this simple act makes us feel good and can make someone else’s day too.

Think of others: Along the same lines as this, you could do something for someone else. Fetching groceries, a newspaper, having a bunch of flowers delivered to their door. By giving something to others, we feel better ourselves.

Do more of what you love: Make the time to do the things that you like doing. Whether that’s reading, listening to music, doing a crossword, yoga or baking, for example. Doing things we enjoy can give us something to look forward to and then taking part in the activity gives us a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. Our brain will in turn release its happy hormones, making us feel better.

Limit your exposure to bad news: Constant exposure to bad news isn’t going to improve your thoughts or mood. See if you can limit your news intake to once per day. Social media can be great at providing us with social interaction, but it can also be a source of negativity. Consider having a clear out of the negative people, those you avoid or those who annoy you. A social media spring clean can set a more positive tone for these interactions. 

Spring clean: Whether it’s spring cleaning the house, organising the garage or tidying the garden, it can all have a positive effect.

Stay in touch: Get social with others. Call up a friend, perhaps someone you’ve been meaning to call for a while. Have a chat, make some plans for the future – you can use video chat to see their face. You could have a virtual coffee or a glass of wine together.

Limit technology: If the weather is bad, try not to overuse technology, staring at screens all day and night is associated with poor emotional wellbeing. We can become fatigued, particularly if we’re using screens all day at work as well. It’s important to take regular breaks – get up, move around and go outside. 

Get a good night’s sleep: In winter, it’s easy to slip into bad sleep habits - late nights, later and later mornings while it’s still dark outside. Take control of your sleep habits. Get a good amount of sleep every night and try to keep to a routine and recharge each night. Exercise is good for sleep, alcohol is bad for good quality sleep.

Get more light: For some people, home daylight boxes can be beneficial. These stimulate sunlight and trigger serotonin release and can also help with maintaining a sleep cycle. 

How to help your team look after their mental health in winter

As a business owner, there are steps that you can take to help your team to look after their mental health in the winter months.

Ensure people are not overworking or overworked: The balance between work and home is something to watch and maintain. But remember, sometimes some people see work as a haven or a distraction from the negative events in their life, so look out for that too.

Keep in touch: Those check-ins are really important and should not be missed. Plan time for each team member and ensure that you stick to it. Cancelling makes people feel less valued, and cancelling regularly can make someone feel unimportant to the business. At each check-in, talk about the non-work things first – ask people how they feel, then ask them again how they really feel. The “OK” answer is often a mask for the reality. Look and listen closely when they answer, and give them all of your attention. 

Peer to peer support: Encourage team members to support each other, to check in with each other regularly. There is great power within teams that can be nurtured to become a positive force. On group calls, you can also allow time for social chat amongst your team before getting down to business. 

Provide support: If someone in your team is struggling, then make time for them. Check in more often, but don’t make it seem like you’re checking up on them. Ask them how they feel and what’s happening. Ensure they’re trying to do something about it and not just letting it continue or build up to unbearable levels or worse, to a crisis. Keep in mind the support available. If you have an Employee Assistance Programme, suggest they call and get some support. You can create a wellness action plan together and track progress.

Normalise discussion: Create an environment where it’s OK to say you’re struggling a bit, where others will step in to help and where sharing experiences is normal.

While it’s understandable that the cold and dark winter months can have a negative effect on our mood, ensuring that you are proactive and take simple and actionable steps towards improving your mood can help you to get through the winter months feeling much more optimistic and content.

How we can help

With an Employee Assistance Programme* in place, your team can get help with the things that are affecting them right from the start – before they start to impact their wellbeing and productivity. Whether they’re going through a family break up, have financial concerns or are struggling with the stresses of work, you can rest assured that they’ll have someone to talk to confidentially by phone – 24/7, 365 days a year.

Find out more about our Employee Assistance Programme, including what is and isn’t covered, and get a quote today

*Our EAP options are not available on their own, without other cover options in the plan.

Sources and references

1NHS Inform

2Peldon Rose via HR Magazine, 2019