“Happy New Year” isn’t a cheery greeting for all

The fun of the Christmas party, letting your hair down with your colleagues after a year of hard work. Then Christmas cheer and turkey with our happy families, logs on the fire, followed by ringing in the New Year with faithful friends who are dear to us. Then rolling up our sleeves and throwing ourselves back into work, completely refreshed, ready for the challenge of 2017 and all it will bring.

Well perhaps not for everyone. Christmas and New Year usually involve complicated and delicate negotiations to try to shore up relationships in a pressure cooker of emotions and usually too much alcohol – we all recognise the carnage in the <em>Eastenders</em> New Year episode. And whether we like it or not, it is usually a time to appraise the success or not of a year, making resolutions that are usually things we don’t like about ourselves and then telling people, making it OK for them to ask, “How is the drinking/smoking/overeating/feud with your mum?”

And then many people will have spent the festive period alone, as their friends return to families or go on holiday. Some will have chosen to, some not. The Samaritans’ helpline is at its busiest over the festive period.

We are becoming a nation of loners. Since 1996, there has been a 16 percent growth of people living alone. The growth of people living alone is rising slightly faster than total households, with 7.7 million living alone, while 2.7 million households contain single parents. Surprising in a nation with a property crisis.

But you don’t have to live alone to be lonely. The pressure on housing in large towns and cities means many people rent rooms in shared houses, where the chances of everyone getting on are hit and miss to say the least. A flat share very rarely turn in an episode of <em>Friends</em>. Add to this the rise in social media, we don’t need to meet for a coffee or a pint to catch up – we already know what our friends are doing without having to ask.

Writing in the <em>Guardian</em>, Andrew Solomon, writer and lecturer on psychology, politics and the arts, said, “Depression is a disease of loneliness. Many untreated depressives lack friends because it saps the vitality that friendship requires and immures its victims in an impenetrable sheath, making it hard for them to speak or hear words of comfort.”

But just because the tinsel has now been packed away, the problem can still be there. January is a particular cruel month, with worries about over-spending at Christmas compounded by people tending not to go out, and everyone seems to be on the wagon anyway. Blue Monday in 2017 is 16 January.

Seeds of loneliness sown at the end of 2016 have plenty of fertile ground to develop into depression and feelings of low esteem. It seems an even more important time to check in on your colleagues over a quiet cup of tea. You don’t have to talk about work, ask how Christmas or the New Year went. What are their plans for the year? Have they booked anything interesting? A holiday or time away? Are they looking forward to it? You’ll be able to see fairly quickly whether someone is unhappy.

It is in every organisation’s interest to have employees with good mental wellbeing. And the first way to find out that things aren’t going well is to ask, just have a conversation. If you don’t know how to, Maudsley Learning at Work can help managers and HR specialists to find appropriate language for you to say the right thing and help you spot symptoms of mental ill health. We don’t expect you to become clinical experts, but by asking the right question and just being a human being, you are most of the way there.

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