When do the clocks go back? How will this affect employee wellbeing? And what can employers do to help?
Full lockdown in the UK officially began on Monday 23 March 2020 – later that week, on Sunday 29 March, we went into Daylight Savings Time. Which means we’ve spent almost the entire period in British Summer Time (BST), with the benefit of lighter evenings.
When Do the Clocks Go Back?
In the early hours of Sunday 25 October at 2am, the UK will revert to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) by going back one hour, marking the official end of British Summer Time. And a new era of post-pandemic partial lockdown in Greenwich Mean Time begins.
What Impact Could This Have on People?
To some, this change may seem insignificant but for many, this has an impact on their energy levels and productivity – upsetting someone’s routine by just an hour can affect their circadian rhythm significantly.
US-based organisation, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences states that, “Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioural changes that follow a daily cycle. They respond primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment. Sleeping at night and being awake during the day is an example of a light-related circadian rhythm.”
Earlier in the year, it took some time for people to adjust to a life of home working – but the circumstances were very different back then, with opportunities to enjoy warm weather and sunlight streaming through our windows. Whilst we are no longer in such strict lockdown (for now at least), the 10pm curfew and continued restrictions to leisure activities such as spectator sports and music concerts means that mood-boosting options are somewhat limited. Without these distractions, changes to light levels, and the natural routine and attitude it sets in motion, could cause harsher mental health challenges.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
In addition to this, the end of summertime can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Although the exact cause of SAD is still unclear, many studies suggest that the symptoms are activated in many people due to lack of sunlight.
Speaking on tackling the issue of SAD in workforces, Joy Reymond, head of rehabilitation services at Unum, commented: “If you intervene early, you can reduce the length of a mental health-related absence by 18 per cent”
Niki Fuchs, Managing Director at Office Space in Town, explains, "As the days get shorter, poor lighting is still one of the factors that is most overlooked in the workplace. In fact, it is associated with a range of mental and physical health impacts, such as eye strain, headaches, fatigue, stress and anxiety – two feelings that we know have already been heightened for many by working at home. Spending too much of the day in artificial lighting can also exacerbate conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), as well as impacting productivity and wellbeing more broadly. So, it is crucial that employers not only provide the flexibility that people need to navigate this winter period, but also access to safe, productive working environments that prioritise their health and wellbeing.”
Exacerbated By COVID Restrictions
“The winter period can create new challenges for supporting employee wellbeing, which has already faced the detrimental effects of lockdown remote working. In fact, in OSiT’s recent survey, 29% of people cited loneliness as one of the main disadvantages of continuous working from home, while 25% of workers reported an increase in anxiety. With 37% of respondents also unable to unplug from work at home, these feelings are only likely to be exacerbated over the winter period this year."
– Niki Fuchs
Managing Director, Office Space in Town
If your employees are suffering from any of these issues then it could be worsened by current limitations – without the daily commute providing a reason to get out of bed and some valuable outdoor time it could be tough to boost those energy levels. Consciously or not, many may miss their office environments more in the winter months, due to the wellbeing features the building has been designed with.
The blurring of home and work life may be exacerbated as we enter winter – as families are forced to move social occasions out of the garden and parks and into the space we now also consider the office. And as more areas are moved into Tier 3, other mood-enhancing solutions such as visiting the gym may no longer be an option.
Chris Moriarty, Director of Insight at the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management explains, “The onset of winter can be challenging, not least in the uncertain times we continue to find ourselves living and working in. The move to a mass work-from-home model in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant challenges for employees across the country, with many finding they are working longer hours, and struggling to separate work and personal life.”
Insights tools can be used to better understand where improvements are needed. Andrew O’Donnell, UK Real Estate and Workplace Director at JLL, states,“Understanding the impacts of the environment, workplace policy and personal circumstances on employee wellbeing has never been more important. JLL has developed a science-led insights tool working with industry experts to measure the impact of environment and circumstance on employee wellbeing and performance to be able to curate environments that enhance health and productivity.”
How Can Employers Help?
Whilst related mental-health issues must be treated sensitively, there are a few practical solutions that employers can put in place to help overall wellbeing.
Moriarty asserts,“It is now more important than ever for organisations to use this as an opportunity to reconsider the wellbeing of their workforce and implement formal strategies to help navigate through these turbulent times, enabling decisions that benefit users and organisations alike, both today and into the future.”
We've pulled together some suggestions to ease the adverse effects of fading light conditions and create a happier, healthier and more motivated workforce.
“Daylight is important but there are many factors that contribute to employee wellbeing and it is important to not consider the narrow elements in one policy but the full spectrum of factors that support mental and physical health e.g. exercise, sleep, flexibility, empowerment and diet.”
– Andrew O’Donnell
UK Real Estate and Workplace Director, JLL
Time to Talk
The clocks going back is a great excuse to open up conversations around wellbeing. Use this opportunity to talk to your teams about their mental health during the winter months – even if they’ve coped well with the challenges of home working and limited human contact so far, they may notice a marked difference as we approach winter.
David Hylton, Wellness Consultant at Sitemark, states, “Employers should have an ongoing dialogue with all employees to cover mental health and wellbeing. Managers should make sure conversations are open and give employees the chance to speak about issues impacting them.”
Offer Flexible Working
The mornings will also be lighter, however, the evenings will be darker – some people may wish to start a little earlier so they can make more of the diminishing evenings. Or they may wish to start an hour or so later so they can go out for a morning walk, run, yoga session or other energising activity.
“For businesses that do share wellbeing tips with their employees, they could note the importance of taking regular breaks, and encourage employees to get outside if they can during the day while it is still light.”
– David Hylton
Wellness Consultant, Sitemark
Moriarty advocates creating policies that enable flexibilty whilst still fulfilling business needs:“Introducing policies such as a ‘core hours’ system could provide greater freedom for employees to choose their working hours, while also ensuring the organisation has its people in place when it needs them most.”
Flexible working could also encourage the return to the office, where it may be easier to ensure wellbeing features and strategies are implemented. Fuchs advises, “Where government guidance and lockdown regulations allow, supporting a safe and voluntary return to the office is crucial to supporting worker mental wellbeing in the coming months. Adjusting working hours is just one way to support this, helping people to avoid peak commute times and access the amenities of the office on a more flexible basis. Keeping a core lunchtime period free from meetings and video calls can also play an important part in giving workers time to access outside spaces during daylight hours.”
If start and finish times are non-negotiable, then insist on proper breaks at lunchtime to encourage people to get out of the house or cook themselves a healthy lunch.
Steve Murphy, Senior Consultant at JLL, suggests an additional morning break as a reasonable alternative, highlighting the importance of pre-lunchtime light conditions:“Regarding the benefits of natural daylight, it’s important to help regulate mood and healthy sleep patterns. One way to achieve this is to take a break in the morning, and go for a 20-minute walk outside. The daylight before midday is thought to be particularly useful to help regulate sleep. So no need to change shift working patterns. Managers and leaders can support this by encouraging their teams, and leading by example.”
Complete a Home Workstation Assessment – With a Focus on Changing Light Conditions
Moriarty states, “As the days grow shorter and darker, businesses should not forget about the importance of natural light for employee wellbeing, engagement and productivity. A 2018 study by Cornellfound that workers in naturally daylit office environments reported an 84 per cent drop in symptoms of eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision, all of which can detract from productivity. Businesses should encourage employees to look at their workspace, setting it up near a natural light source such as a window and take regular breaks outdoors, away from digital devices where possible.”
You could tie in discussions about the effects of reduced sunlight with routine home workstation assessments, which are essential for working safely with display screen equipment, as outlined by the Health and Safety Executive.
"Is the lighting suitable, eg not too bright or too dim to work comfortably?
Users should be able to control light levels, eg by adjusting window blinds or light switches. Consider shading or repositioning light sources or providing local lighting, eg desk lamps (but make sure lights don’t cause glare by reflecting off walls or other surfaces)."
Many people don’t have sufficient lighting in their homes for working during the winter months. You could offer a lightbox or sunlight-mimicking lamp in response to this, without being too intrusive.
The NHS website explains how sun lamps work: “The light produced by the lightbox simulates the sunlight that's missing during the darker winter months. It's thought the light may improve SAD by encouraging your brain to reduce the production of melatonin (a hormone that makes you sleepy) and increase the production of serotonin (a hormone that affects your mood).”
Many users remark on noticeable benefits:
“Using a light box wasn’t perfect but the change was tangible... a real shift and I began to cope better with the dark days and didn’t have the all encompassing desire to get back into bed and stay there.”
Image: A person working on a laptop and holding a mobile phone in a dark room with a desk lamp
Switch on Computer Night Time Mode
Encourage employees to wind down in the evening by activating night time mode on computers – most PCs, laptops and mobile devices now have this function. It’s called Night Light in Windows and Night Shift on Mac.
Studies show the blue light cast by bright screens throws off our circadian rhythm and reduces our ability to fall asleep fast. This disruption to sleep causes people to struggle to get up in the morning and impacts how well we maintain our energy throughout the day.
So if employees are working beyond sunset due to flexible working arrangements or time-sensitive tasks, ensuring they are in the appropriate screen mode code benefit their future productivity greatly.
Offer Motivating Meals
Whilst light is lacking, our bodies rely more heavily on food sources to keep our energy flowing. So high-quality nutrition should be high on the agenda for employers wanting to boost productivity through a challenging winter season.
In the USA, meal subscription service Freshly has created a new meal service called Freshly for Business to provide healthy and affordable meals for home workers. The programme allows employers to offer free or subsidised meal plans consisting of up to 12 meals per week. Companies including PwC and KPMG are partnering with Freshly, which costs an average of $8 (around £6) per meal per employee.
“The quality of fuel we put in our body ultimately controls the output,” says Michael Wystrach, CEO of Freshly. “So how well our brain functions, how our emotions and hormones are released, how productive we are, it really does start with diet.”
In the UK, some businesses are working with established catering partners to offer fresh boxed lunches and Uber for Business suggests companies, “Motivate with WFH meals”. Continuing, “For many businesses, home is the new office. Let your staff get local restaurant food delivered right to their doorstep.” The Uber for Business app allows employers to create meal programmes – employees can be added with options to set permissions for time, location and budget.
If full meals aren’t an option then providing snacks could also help. Many offices provide fresh fruits and healthy snacks, so why not extend this offer to home workers? Whilst winter conditions zap energy levels, this could be more valuable than ever.
In 2017 Industry body, British Summer Fruit conducted a study exploring how different seasons affect employee brain function and the workplace. The findings suggest that over two-thirds of workers have lower concentration, are less productive and are more likely to comfort eat in winter months. Swapping typical summertime snacks (like fruit) for more comforting winter treats (such as biscuits and chocolate) can be further detrimental to our energy levels. And home workers are soon to be tested whilst they continue to work within steps of their kitchen cupboards.
Dr Christy Fergusson, a leading UK food psychologist behind Channel 4's Secret Eaters, states: “Relying on high sugar foods, biscuits and crisps to keep us going can leave us riding the blood sugar rollercoaster. We feel buzzed for a spell but soon our energy, concentration and mood can plummet.”
“One of the best foods to snack on has to be berries. Not only are they loaded with antioxidants and highly nutritious, they are also low in sugar. You could say they are nature's brain food. They pack a serious nutritional punch for every calorie consumed. This makes them the ideal way to supercharge your system with nutrients, without escalating your blood sugar levels.”
Sending employees a snack box of nuts and fresh or dried fruits could help them feel motivated, stabilise their blood-sugar levels and demonstrates that you care.
Main Image: An alarm clock and notepad on colourful background
Article written by Daisy Miceli | Published 22 October 2020
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