The winter months can be a tough time - made even harder due to the global Covid-19 pandemic and recurring lockdowns. But by encouraging your team to look after their health and providing them with the support to do so, you can help them stay happy and healthy this winter.

Of all the seasons winter seems to last the longest every year, and most organisations know how difficult it is to maintain a motivated and productive workforce during this time of year.

Respiratory and flu-like illnesses are usually more common, and a lack of direct sunlight can affect the body’s clock, mood and motivation too. In fact, one in 15 people in the UK are affected by the ‘winter blues’.

We recommend 5 key areas of focus at this time of year to help keep the winter blues at bay.

1. Take your vitamin D
Vitamin D has a direct effect on the body’s immune response and being deficient in this vitamin has been linked to a higher susceptibility to infections.

The NHS recommends all adults consider taking a 400IU vitamin D supplement year round, but very few of us do. In fact, according to the NHS, 54% of us are deficient. 400IU is just a minimum recommendation though, and some people will need a higher dosage to keep their vitamin D levels up. We recommend taking a blood test to get to know your vitamin D levels.

Our Clinical lead and Dietitian Emma Pryke advises: “So many of our LiveSmart users discover their vitamin D levels are sub-optimal when they take a health assessment. Knowing what your level is and the right supplement dose to correct it can have significant impacts on your health, helping to protect bone health into older age, improving energy levels and mood and helping to support your immune system”

2. Eat plenty of fruit and veg
Fruit and vegetables are rich in natural antioxidants including vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene and zinc - all of which support our body’s response to infection and illness.

According to LiveSmart data, 73% of employees eat three or less portions of fruit and vegetables per day. Emma says: “Most of us are familiar with the idea of getting your ‘5 a day’ but we hear over and over from our users that it takes effort and planning to really get into this habit. Simple changes like swapping a snack for a piece of fruit or including another serving of veg at dinner is a great place to start. Exploring meat-free recipe ideas can also help to keep things interesting; using pulses and whole grains which provide a great source of fibre and protein.”

We should also consider what happens when we go back to the workplace - can you maintain the habit and opt for healthy lunch and snack options? Are there enough fridges so people can bring fresh food or packed lunches?

3. Be more active
Many of us sit for hours in front of our computers and this is putting our physical and mental health at risk. The change to remote working also means your team have likely swapped the commute for more computer time, lengthening sedentary positions. Even short bouts of moderate exercise (such a 20-30 minute brisk walk) can have an acute positive effect on the body’s immune function, as physical activity can promote blood circulation and removal of waste products and toxins from the body. Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly tend to have less sick days off work compared to sedentary individuals.

Exercising regularly also plays a key role in helping us beat the winter blues, with it being a great stress reliever and mood enhancer. LiveSmart’s senior Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist Hara Papadopolou explains: "In the UK, 1 in 3 men and 1 in 2 women are not active enough for good health. Our data shows that only 24% of our users are meeting national recommendations when they complete their first health assessment. Our coaches help individuals identify and address their barriers to being active, providing support and encouragement to reach those activity goals"

4. Manage stress levels
Stress can place immense demands on our physical and mental health and well-being, impacting our behaviour, performance and relationships with colleagues. It's a major cause of long-term absence from work, and knowing how to manage the factors that can cause work-related stress is key to managing people effectively.

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted people’s mental wellbeing as well as their physical health. Along with the fear and uncertainty caused by Covid-19 itself, there have been huge changes and challenges relating to our work lives too. Many people have shifted to full time home working, potentially increasing work demands but decreasing the sense of control people feel they have; this can be a recipe for increased stress. Many are also juggling work demands with caring responsibilities, either for children or vulnerable relatives. Many parents are now full time workers and homeschool teachers too. Employers need to be aware of the personal, as well as work, pressures on people.

We recommend supporting your team to establish a good self-care routine including a healthy approach to diet, relaxation and sleep which can all help to reduce stress levels.

5. Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep deprivation can affect wellbeing and productivity, as well as contribute to serious illness. The occasional night without sleep will make you feel tired the next day but it won’t affect your health overall. But after several sleepless nights you might find it difficult to concentrate and make decisions. You may also start to worry about not being able to get to sleep, leading to stress and low moods.

The impact on health is serious and wide-ranging. Research has also shown that poor sleep quality can directly affect the body’s protective immune system. Generally speaking, human beings can live longer without food (about 11 days) than they can without sleep.

Emma suggests: “There are lots of steps individuals can take to address poor sleep. Monitoring your sleep with a diary or app can provide important clues to patterns affecting your sleep. Reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, adjusting the timings of exercise sessions or meals, and adopting strategies like mindfulness, relaxing breathing exercises or meditation can also lead to significant improvements to sleep quality”.

Team leads can also support their people by setting clear expectations and limits on expected availability after working hours and/or introducing policies limiting after-hours communications. Discouraging the excessive use of electronic devices outside of working hours, and especially close to bedtime, will be beneficial to sleep health.

Learn more about the top 5 signs your staff are struggling with their mental health.