The cost-of-living crisis will have a significant impact on the mental health of your workforce. We look at four ways to take proactive action to help them weather the storm.

The cost-of-living crisis, which has already seen food, mortgage and heating costs soar, is set to tip even more people into experiencing the ‘winter blues’ this year.

Many employees, who typically use the run-up to Christmas as a reason to be cheerful, are instead saying they can’t even afford to put the heating on or buy winter clothes. This not only has serious implications for their physical health but also their mental health.

Although employers can’t take away these worries, you can support and build the resilience of your workforce, to help them weather the storm and reduce the number of employees going absent with stress, anxiety or depression. Here are four ways:

1. Proactively reduce stress levels

As human beings, we are only designed to handle so much pressure. We can usually cope with two or three significant stressors at once, so when things get more challenging, our ability to cope is diminished.

If employees are constantly worried about their finances, they have reduced capacity to manage other work and life demands. This means if they’re also struggling to meet a deadline or a customer becomes aggressive or their car breaks down, they may not be able to cope as they normally would.

Instead of waiting until they get to breaking point, a valuable exercise is to help employees take stock of the pressures they’re under and what they can and can’t change. Most people know which “straw is breaking the camel’s back” but need encouragement to act on this. For example, if they’re struggling to juggle work and eldercare, can they work more flexibly or can another relative help? If they’re struggling with a deadline, can it be moved back a bit?

2. Reduce the risk of ‘winter depression’

Every year, the colder darker days cause many employees to develop ‘winter depression’ – medically referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The symptoms of this can range from persistent low mood, lethargy and a loss of pleasure or interest in normal activities to feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness.

Over two million people in the UK are affected, but with people’s mental reserves already running low, even more people will be tipped into becoming affected this year. The cost-of-living crisis could also cause them to become affected earlier than usual, if they can no longer afford their usual Christmas experiences to keep their mood high until January.

Although the exact causes of the ‘winter blues’ are not fully understood, a lack of serotonin, due to reduced sunlight is a key factor, meaning it’s important to encourage employees to go outside during daylight hours every day. Managing stress levels and exercise can also help, so factor the mental health benefits of this into your overall wellbeing strategy. Encourage managers to lead by example by taking ‘fresh air breaks’ and leaving their desk at lunch. Sunrise alarms can assist with getting up on dark mornings, and lightboxes, which simulate the intensity of summer’s midday sun, used in the first part of the day can boost mood and concentration levels.

3. Encourage managers to support mental health

Although many of the issues now facing employees are non-work-related, pressure at work might be the only factor that can still be controlled. This means the role of managers in supporting the mental health of their team is more important than ever. Not least as one in three (33%) employees see a supportive manager as an important wellbeing benefit, according to research carried out for our latest Health at Work Report.

As managers at Kura, one of the UK’s largest customer service centres, discovered when they took part in managing mental health workshops, the human side of managing a team matters just as much as managing targets and output. After learning how to have supportive conversations with employees and build a positive culture, managers were able to make employees feel much more cared for and loyal to the organisation. Read the full case study.

Critical to empowering managers to provide this level of support is first educating them about the warning signs that someone is starting to struggle, so they can be supported before an absence or performance issue arises. These distress signals can include reduced motivation and concentration, missing deadlines or changes in attitude or appearance due to reduced self-care.

4. Provide wellbeing checks

Some of the stressors now facing employees are so huge, and seemingly unmanageable, that many people are in denial and don’t want to face up to them. If they know their energy bill or mortgage is set to almost double in a few months, instead of cutting costs, they might decide they want ‘Christmas as normal’ while they still can, setting the ground for bigger issues further down the line. Others are so overwhelmed by pressure at work, due to ongoing skills shortages, their ability to problem-solve to improve their situation is reduced.

In both cases, it can be helpful for the individual to be given the opportunity to have a wellbeing check, so they can talk one-to-one, in confidence, with a counsellor about how they’re feeling. This can provide a safe space for them to identify what they can do to manage their situation to protect their mental health.

The counsellor can explore with the employee what coping strategies may support them with managing their responses to stressful situations and discuss how they might discuss their work-related stressors with their manager. This may reduce the risk of them having to go absent from work. If further support is needed, the counsellor can also signpost them into additional psychological support services the employer might have in place, such as counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or trauma therapies, such as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), if appropriate.

Kate Martin is head of psychological services for PAM Wellbeing

Free Webinar: How to have supportive mental health discussions in the workplace

12.30pm – 1.15pm, Wednesday 7 December 2022

Join us to find out how to have supportive mental health discussions in the workplace. Our taster training session will provide coaching and tips from one of our experts on how to use supportive conversations to reduce stress and anxiety levels. Find out more and register here.

How can PAM Wellbeing help?

Our comprehensive wellbeing services can help to reduce mental health related absence in the following ways:

Mental health webinars: Increase your employees’ awareness of their mental health and wellbeing and how they can proactively look after themselves by learning techniques to manage work and life pressures.

Manager training: Educate managers how to proactively manage mental health in the workplace, have supportive conversations and create a caring culture to make employees feel more supported.

PAM Wellbeing’s EAP: Round-the-clock access to professional counsellors, health, legal and financial experts. Including digital access to expert health and wellbeing resources and CBT training.

Psychological Services: Access to professional counsellors through management referrals for proactive services such as well-checks and professional support conversations and further rehabilitation services.

“PAM Wellbeing developed our managers to create a positive shift in business culture and the quality of our relationships. It’s made our people feel more cared for and loyal.” 

– Lynn Middler, Human Resources Business Partner, Kura

To set up a private consultation to discuss the opportunities for boosting the mental health of your workforce, please email with your availability.