Even though Labor Day is a holiday, it may be one of the most stressful days of the year for many employees and managers. They have enjoyed the spoils of summer for the past few months, and now Labor Day brings a tiny but growing thought that won’t go away: The party’s over.
September, or as some like to call it in the Twitterverse, “Stresstember,” is one of the more anxiety-inducing months of the year. According to Christopher Ingram, a former Pew Research analyst, some of the highest peaks in Internet searches related to depression and anxiety occur in the month of September. An article published in 2014 on Ingram’s “misery index,” which relies on user search data for its conclusions, claimed summer was the happiest season, while fall was the most stressful. Identical search terms in 2019 demonstrate similar trends, although overall stress and searches for depression-related terms are significantly higher in 2019 than in 2014. So, not only is fall still one of the more stressful seasons, stress in general is getting worse.
The reason why fall might be particularly stressful can be attributed to the dramatic shift in routines. Whenever we experience atypical changes in our daily schedule, it can be highly disruptive to our physical and mental health. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 56.6 million students will attend elementary, middle and high schools nationally this fall. For millions of working parents, back-to-school season can feel like a giant tree just fell across their path and they’re now scrambling to maneuver around it. On the first day of school, they will hastily make lunches again and photograph and wave goodbye to the kids. There will be more buses on the road and longer commuting times, adding to the stress.
In addition, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) impacts 10 million people in the U.S. annually, and it is four times more common in women than in men, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The AAFP claims that another 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans will experience milder versions of the disorder. Seasonal depression is often linked only to winter because the increased darkness during the season reduces vitamin D absorption, which is especially true the farther north you live. For example, Washington state has seven times more cases of SAD than Florida. Autumn can be the trigger for SAD and poses its own serious challenges to mental health. Unfortunately for most managers, September is a mental health and well-being blind spot.
How to Ramp Up Without Burning Out
For most organizations, the Tuesday following Labor Day is all about resetting, and many leaders are eager to get their people back into a steady pace of work. They can’t wait to shake off the slowdown of summer and regain momentum toward meeting quarterly goals. And they might assume this feeling is mutual, and everyone is rested and revitalized after a break—a valid assumption, since vacations are strongly correlated to more-productive and engaged employees. But the summer months trend slower for most sectors of the workforce. Therefore, the way managers lead in fall should be more nuanced. They should help their teams ramp up responsibly, and avoiding burnout should be a top priority.
Hawley Kane, SHRM-SCP, vice president of organizational development at 2KEYS in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, knows that September is a heavy month for her staff. “Not only are kids starting the school year, but it is typically a kick-start back to work. Things really slow down in the summer, and September is like the green light to overwork,” she said.
Kane cautions that too often, leaders overlook how much a shift at home is competing with the re-establishment of routines at work. She suggests that September is the perfect time to check in with employees. “We need to understand not only how our people are tracking toward quarterly goals, but [how] other events are influencing their lives,” she said. “Building an open and trusting relationship through regular check-ins increases employee commitment, engagement and trust.”
Leveraging Hope to Retain Unhappy Staff
Fall is also when employees re-evaluate their careers. If workers are slow to adjust after the holidays, it might mean they aren’t happy at work. If they dread coming in to work on Mondays, the dread will increase after a longer holiday break. Leaders can use this time as an opportunity to connect on a personal level with all staff and see how they want to make the rest of this year successful.
When we connect hope with organizational goals and design collaborative plans to achieve them, it can increase motivation for anyone who may be lacking it, wrote Charles Snyder, formerly the Wright Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas and editor of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. He is globally recognized for his work related to hope and goal attainment. In September, managers can leverage Snyder’s hope theory in these ways:
- Ask staff to create one-month and one-year goals.
- Gather the team and discuss ways that individuals can offer their support and expertise to their peers.
- Check back in monthly so co-workers can share their successes and barriers and get advice on how to overcome challenges as they advance toward their goals.
The Need for Flexibility in the Fall
Although developing year-round, flexible scheduling options for employees is a valued and worthwhile policy, ensuring that these perks are in place during busy times of the year can make or break employee engagement. Jeff Finley, total rewards manager at 3M Canada in London, Ontario, understands that the back-to-school time frame is particularly busy. He also realizes that working parents are juggling their increasingly busy lifestyles and require consistent support. Finley notes that 3M implemented several programs to help employees accommodate their family and personal commitments all year.
“Our FlexAbility program empowers employees to work with their supervisors to accommodate flexing their workday,” he said. “If a parent needs to leave work early for school or child care pickup, that employee has the ability to start their workday earlier or work from home in the evening.”
Vanessa Buote, social psychologist and research ethics advisor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, emphasizes in her research that flexibility is particularly important for working parents. She found that parents who had children at home and experienced greater workplace flexibility often felt the following:
- More satisfied with their job.
- Less anxious about their job.
- Less apt to see work/life balance as a cause of stress.
- More grateful at work.
- More resilient.
One of the biggest benefits of workplace flexibility may be increased job satisfaction, as research links high job satisfaction to engagement, loyalty, productivity, lower employee turnover and profitability. To achieve increased well-being and job satisfaction for working parents, Buote suggests implementing policies that include flexible starting and stopping times, job sharing, reduced hours, compressed hours and working from home, to name a few. Most importantly, as managers help workers juggle work and family life, they need to talk to their employees about their individual scheduling needs.
“Among parents, those who valued flexibility at work were less likely to see the work/life balance as a source of stress—possibly because they were actually able to better manage their work and home life,” according to Buote. “Given the negative implications of workplace stress—it’s been associated with poorer health, fatigue, absenteeism—employers should be actively looking for ways to reduce stress and inspire flourishing among employees.”
Encourage Better Sleep and Stir Creativity
Sleep patterns are vastly different in the summer, especially during vacations. Research shows that the first few weeks at work after taking a vacation may be more tiring than others, since brains atrophy slightly when they aren’t stimulated and may not be as responsive in those first days after summer holidays. At work, this increases the potential for decreased problem-solving abilities and dulled creative and innovative thinking.
To stimulate healthy brain activity, try an inexpensive but remarkably useful creativity exercise: doodling. Sunni Brown, a best-selling author and consultant in Austin, Texas, is globally recognized for her insights on doodling. Her TED Talk has 1.4 million views and growing. “Because doodling is surprisingly multifaceted, you can use it to either awaken the mind—stimulating insight, imagination and creativity—or to soften the mind, summoning a state of focused and relaxed attention,” she said.
Try dropping off sketch pads and coloring pencils at your employees’ desks. Neuroscientists claim that doodling can help people focus, ease impatience, vent emotions, revise ideas and even generate bursts of insight or new ideas. Researchers claim doodling helps the brain remain active by engaging its “default networks,” regions that maintain a baseline of activity in the cerebral cortex when outside stimuli are absent. According to one study in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, people who were encouraged to doodle while listening to a list of people’s names were able to remember 29 percent more of the information later on a surprise quiz.
Work/Life Integration vs. Work/Life Balance All Year
Finally, to make the return to work less stressful after any holiday, reduce the mental contrast between personal and professional time. September doesn’t need to be all work and no play. Scott Kramer, SHRM-SCP, chief talent officer at American Paradigm Schools in Philadelphia, believes that if you spend more time at work than at home, then your leaders should make the workplace a fun place to be. Kramer kicks off September with staff meet-and-greets, followed by talks from noted authors and company-provided meals. Focusing on boosting altruism, a key trait to happier workplace cultures, Kramer commits to giving back in the fall. “This year we gave out over 300 backpacks with supplies to students in need,” he says.
Kramer keeps enthusiasm for work as an ongoing ideology throughout the year. On the first Friday of every month, staff participate in an entertaining, team-building game, such as an office scavenger hunt with free lunch and prizes. Half days off allow staff to attend continuing-education courses and keep their certifications active.
Kramer says that efforts by the leadership team are paying off. “Our turnover rate is extremely low, and 50 percent of new hires came from employee referrals, which speaks volumes, and 80 percent of people who leave want to come back to APS.”
To help “Stresstember” become “Bestember,” strive to make work and life less about balance and more about integration. Since people will spend 115,000 hours of their lifetime at work, and their brains don’t bifurcate the stress between work and life, it’s paramount that work be a place where employees can be challenged but have fun.
Jennifer Moss is author of Unlocking Happiness at Work (Kogan Page, 2016) and co-founder of Plasticity Labs, a Waterloo, Ontario, Canada-based research and consulting company that focuses on organizational culture.