Blue Monday isn’t a thing. The data shows April could be way tougher

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Blue Monday – the third Monday of January – is, or so the theory goes, the most depressing day of the year. It’s cold, you’ve spent all your money on Christmas and all your new year’s resolutions have failed. Then 2021 came along and added a devastating new wave of Covid-19 infections and deaths. Happy new year. For those of us who spent much of 2020 working on couches and at kitchen tables, it seemed likely the January blues would hit us especially hard. A fine theory – but the data paints a different picture.
Behavioural scientists have long claimed that blue January simply doesn’t exist. A 2018 survey of 2,100 working adults in the UK found that January was the worst month for worker productivity. But the reasons provided weren’t stress or mental health related, with participants admitting that they were less productive in January because they found themselves gossiping to colleagues or spending time in the kitchen making endless cups of tea.


That’s productivity, though – which doesn’t equal happiness. “January isn’t as down a month as we think it is,” says Ricardo Twumasi, a lecturer in organisational psychology at King’s College London. “There isn’t any evidence to suggest that people are particularly more unhappy at any particular Monday in January, or in January in particular.”
While the January blues might not actually be a thing, the challenges of coping with a third national lockdown are all too real. Researchers from the University of Glasgow studied the mental health of people in the UK during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020 and found that suicidal thoughts increased over the first six weeks, with one in ten reporting suicidal thoughts by the end of the period.
Researchers also found that a quarter of people reported experiencing at least one problem with their mental health during the initial lockdown. So if you were finding it difficult to concentrate, felt stressed or felt anxious, you really weren’t alone. Those who appeared to struggle the most had been laid off or had young children that they had to home-school. One in three were stressed about potentially losing their job, while 45 per cent of those unemployed were stressed about not being able to afford to pay their bills.
If the first lockdown was tough, the third – taking place through the coldest, darkness months of winter – could be even worse. “Stress is cumulative. We’re very good at taking episodic stress when there is a time of recovery and relaxation in-between those peaks,” says psychologist Cliff Arnall. “What is much more difficult is when there’s sustained stress. And that’s actually what we have now. It definitely increases that cumulative sense of this being never-ending.”


In a study on productivity during the first UK lockdown, researchers from the University of Essex found that people working from home weren’t more or less productive than they were working in the office. But if someone stated that they got much less done at home, they were also likely to report declines in their overall wellbeing and mental health.
People working from home admit to having chronic low-grade stress, being constantly distracted by things outside their window or doom-scrolling through social media. The promise of a vaccine may have raised hopes of a return to normal before Christmas, but it is now unlikely that there will be any change for the foreseeable future for the majority of the office working-age population. So what’s going to happen in this current lockdown?
If the third lockdown continues through to April, it could further exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety that, by then, will have been commonplace for over a year. That’s because it isn’t January when people reportedly suffer the most with their anxiety levels, but the spring, and April in particular. In the UK, suicide rates are at their highest in the months of April and May, which is a key measure that researchers use to monitor mental health. “April is one of the hardest months for people in the northern hemisphere for mental health risk,” says Twumasi. Although the spring generally signals new beginnings and brighter days, for others it could make a bout of depression and anxiety already exacerbated by a potentially lengthy third lockdown even worse.
Since the first lockdown, many companies have implemented wellbeing schemes to help employees stave off burnout and feel more relaxed and motivated. Companies have introduced everything from daily sessions of Zoom yoga and Mindfulness Mondays to Friday pizza parties and awkward team-building exercises in virtual escape rooms to boost morale. Those activities might not cut it during a third lockdown when people are feeling particularly Zoom-ed out. “Whilst I applaud any workplaces doing their best to improve the quality of wellbeing and looking at things holistically, I do think people want clarity,” says Arnell. And that’s not something that all workplaces can provide.


Instead, what employers should be looking to do is give their employees more freedom. At the beginning of the year, online rota software company RotaCloud introduced something it calls ‘Light Lunches’ to help its employees get through the third lockdown. With Light Lunches, employees get a two-hour lunch break a couple of times a week without needing to make the time back. “As the days are still really short, and as we’re all still working from home there aren’t as many reasons to get outside, so we wanted to help people make use of the daylight and get some fresh air and vitamin D,” says co-founder James Lintern.
So while a subscription to an app like Headspace is a welcome perk, Twumasi says that workplace schemes that don’t restrict employees to specific activities are always better. And if it includes getting people away from their screens during a dark and dreary lockdown, then it’s a big winner. “Being able to get some light in the daytime will reduce the risk of people having seasonal affective disorder,” he says. “Anything that gives the individual freedom to take care of their own health or to take ownership for their own health in a way that works for them is always useful.”
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Alex Lee is a business writer at WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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