Author Bio ▼

Heather Beach is Founder and Managing Director of The Healthy Work Company and has been running businesses in health and safety for over 20 years. Having run Barbour, SHP and Safety and Health Expo, she is now running her own business. The Healthy Work Company provides solutions which drive the wellbeing agenda to enable thriving in the workplace at all levels. Offering more than simply training, it delivers strategic support for your wellbeing programme. "We are driving the mental health agenda towards how human beings thrive in life – often through work, not in spite of it!"Heather can be reached on [email protected].
January 15, 2024

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Beyond Blue Monday

On the year’s most miserable day (allegedly), Heather Beach says it’s not surprising we’re so exhausted, yet embracing realistic optimism might just take the edge off.

Sometimes a term just captures the imagination – whether scientifically it has validity or not. In fact, let’s face it, that happens a lot.

One term is ‘Blue Monday’, supposedly the third Monday of January, manufactured by Sky Travel as the most miserable day of the year and therefore a motivator for people to book a holiday, underpinned by ‘research’, which has since been debunked. The phrase captured the imagination of those of us in the Northern Hemisphere who, once the ‘new year, new me’ sparkle has worn off, are faced with wet, cold weather, no money post-Christmas, and nothing to look forward to – ok. that is a little nihilistic but you get the picture).

The Samaritans since took hold of the term and turned it into ‘Brew Monday‘ a positive way of looking at it – let’s take someone for a cuppa and have a proper chinwag.

Less optimistic

Blue Monday or no Blue Monday, there is no way around it, we have had a difficult few years as a nation, and as a human tribe. Most of us are exhausted by the constant knocks. Between COVID-19, political uncertainty, climate change and nearby war, life looks less optimistic and rosy.

I sometimes wonder if my picture is even more tarnished by the fact that most of my friends are in their fifties and also have ageing, sick parents, difficult teenage children and menopause. We know these things come to us all, but in the past women were not working big jobs in the way they are now, so it all hits harder. But I do know from research that it isn’t just my tribe struggling. Optimism, hope, and general happiness have decreased, we have a record number of people on long-term sick leave in the UK and one in eight of us is taking an anti-depressant.

The fact that so many of us are struggling shows that wellbeing cannot be an entirely individual concept.  There is also the impact of the water in which we swim – our environment – both immediate (family, friends and workplace) and more broadly (politically). Despite the individualistic, happiness-chasing, FOMO culture in which we live, no man is an island and it is easier to be happy when you have close connections, social support and systems in place to catch you when you fall.

What the current trend in focus on individual happiness doesn’t acknowledge is that ‘happiness’ is a complex concept (like wellbeing) for which philosophers and psychologists can’t completely agree on a definition. I do see it as a paradoxical concept, often occurring when we are pursuing something else (e.g. in flow) or serving others. Further paradoxes are evident when you look at the fact that those countries at the top of the global happiness index (they have high social support but also perhaps lower expectations of life), sometimes also have high suicide rates.

It is complicated. Balancing hedonic ‘in the moment’ happiness with long-term life satisfaction – which often comes through meaning, purpose and service. While there is a huge amount of research emanating from positive psychology on how to ‘thrive’, it is very much an individual recipe – what works for you might not work for me. Just as stress is an imbalance of demands vs perceived resources – what stresses me out may not be stressful for you and the amount I can cope with will depend on how I am resourced at the time.

Yes, wellbeing and happiness are not only individual but systemic, but as individuals we can impact those around us by being the best we can be too. So, here are a few research-based ways to be at your best in 2024.

Look after your physical health: Sleep, nutrition, exercise

Yawn Heather yes, we all know this but let me say that the problem often isn’t knowing what to do, it is finding the time, the energy, and the will to do it.

And let’s face it, that is the problem.  It is partly about freeing yourself up from those habitual things we do for comfort – working too hard, ticking things off our to-do list, having a tipple, Netflix binging, people-pleasing, or candy crush.

So you need to find something you love to do, understand why you want to do it (where does it fit into your identity) and then a structure, or habit which supports it (even if it is only a small thing like getting off the bus a stop earlier).

Sleep is the biggest problem among people I train – many of whom work shifts or just can’t let go of their to-do lists.

And again most of us will struggle with one aspect of this. For example, for me it is exercise. I know that many of you love to run or cycle and I know it does feel good afterwards,  but a brisk walk is all I can stomach (and I even had to get a dog as a habit structure to hold me to account!). Nutrition is easier; being a foodie, I embrace my middle-class roots by getting a free-range organic box delivered once a week and delight in creating new recipes trying to beat my use of different veggies every week. And to get my seven hours sleep a night I not only go to bed much earlier than most people, but I invested in the comfiest mattress and the best sheets! (Sleep is the biggest problem among people I train – many of whom work shifts or just can’t let go of their to-do lists).

Decide who your close friends and family are and prioritise them

Human connection and support are a fundamental aspect of resilience and recovery. Yet we tend to go with the flow and once again fall back on our habits here, which might include being available to everyone and anyone who asks or never calling anyone to stay in touch.

Those of us who are extrovert, may tend to collect people and say yes to everything, feeling a sense of duty to certain people (who may well drain us) rather than selecting carefully what and who, we say yes to.

That habit got thoroughly knocked out of me during the pandemic. I look back at the kind of life I led with a kind of horror.  I know we are all tired, but how did I find the energy? Now I have lots of lovely people I like to connect with when I can, but I keep lots of weekend and evening time free and I prioritise my gorgeous sister and my very best friends who accept me as I am and energise me. I say no often.

Then there are those people who perhaps are more introverted, or indeed a lot of people (particularly men) who don’t have friends at all. One in eight men do not have a friend they would discuss a serious topic with (e.g. work worries, a health problem, money concerns etc). When I look at old age, I think it is far better to be in a Mediterranean country where the ‘old boys’ all meet at the bus stop, the coffee shop or the bowling green rather than being in the UK and alone in front of the telly.

So yes, take advantage of Brew Monday and connect with someone important to you but also think proactively about who energises you and makes you feel good and make a point of making plans with them – nurture your relationships with your tribe.

Slow down

I know I must be embracing a zeitgeist here when I notice that almost everyone I speak to has a plan to embrace tranquillity, or slow down and smell the coffee this year.

I think this not only speaks to the exhausting, uncertain time we have been through, but also a realisation that we all just give way too much of our time to work; That the addictive technology which has driven us to move so quickly has us on autopilot and we are spending the average of 4,000 weeks we have on this earth, working way too hard or scrolling. Yet if we sit and think about it, we know that our family, our health and perhaps other things are often more important to us.

When I was building a course on managing overwhelm for ITV last year, I had a few realisations:

  • Cognitive processes such as planning each week, writing lists and saying no more often are important, but thinking about why we are individually driven to live so fast and work so hard is even more important – are we people pleasers, perfectionists or just plain terrified?
  • Slowing down enables us to build self-awareness – why did I get triggered by that? What drives that inability to take criticism? Is it something from our childhood (usually!)
  • It is only through slowing down that we can better regulate our emotions – and respond rather than react, be curious, connect;
  • That mindfulness (meant in the broadest sense of the word), yoga, breathing exercises are all helpful to this process, as is gratitude for what we have in the here and now.

Embrace realistic optimism

As the founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman said: “What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism—optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows.”

Optimism can have a bad reputation (I have been called “Pollyanna” in the past), but it isn’t just focusing on the positive but being planted in reality. Looking at the hard, scary and uncertain things squarely in the eye and maintaining a belief that we will prevail despite our current reality. This is crucial to help us maintain control, hope, and resilience.

In essence my friends, on Blue Monday, by all means have a brew and book a holiday but you could also spend some time thinking about how you can improve your 2024 by a few percentage points by adopting some proactive strategies to improve your wellbeing. And look reality squarely in the eye. It might be difficult times, but we are here for a short time on this earth and how can we continue to prevail and be happy?

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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