How to motivate your team at the least productive time of the year

In this piece, we look at some of the biggest factors affecting productivity and mood, and offer you some effective solutions to beat the seasonal dip in team morale.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, data suggests that the dark days of the winter months (particularly the first quarter of the year) tend to be the least productive.

Returning back to work after any break can be a struggle for employees, but the long, frosty and financially burdensome month of January can be a particularly depressing time after the excitement of the festive period.

For business owners, the challenge is how to motivate your team during these difficult periods. We look at some of the biggest factors affecting productivity and mood, and offer you some effective solutions to beat the seasonal dip in team morale.

1. Heat, light, hunger and fog

Most of us in the UK suffer from some form of the ‘winter blues’* – a vague feeling of unhappiness and fatigue that increases as the days get shorter and colder, sometimes accompanied by trouble sleeping and changed eating habits. This is perfectly normal in countries with varying seasons, but its effects shouldn’t be discounted by employers.

A common aspect of this seasonal malaise is ‘brain fog’ – a temporary feeling of forgetfulness, confusion and/or lack of concentration. Many triggers have been suggested for it, from disturbed sleeping patterns to not eating enough (perhaps due to new year diets).

Although there’s nothing any business can do about the seasons outside the office, it’s important to ensure your office environment is comfortable – feeling too cold is one of the most-cited reasons for seasonal productivity drops.

Beat the blues

Get the office temperature right. You’ll never be able to please the whole team all of the time, but research suggests setting the thermostat to 21ᵒC for maximum crowd-pleasing. You could also seek to offset gloominess with additional lighting and cheerful colours (or conversely brightness by installing effective blinds).

The urge to comfort eat could be countered by providing afternoon snacks to help employees out of the post-lunch dip – but given that the workplace ‘cake culture’ has recently been blamed for increasing obesity, you might want to opt for healthier alternatives such as nuts and fruit.

As for combatting brain fog, it’s up to your employees to get their eight hours’ sleep, and keep their blood sugar levels stable. However, you could encourage your team to dispel the fog and improve their concentration and memory using fun techniques – brain-taxing games like chess have been shown to improve cognitive ability.

2. Workplace ennui

The general gloom that can descend on a workforce returning after a holiday season is multi-faceted; the biggest contributors vary between companies and teams, but often include:

  • Career stagnation and boredom
  • Dissatisfaction with wages, working hours or workload
  • Issues with management – such as lack of direction or vision, or lack of appreciation
  • Lack of control over upcoming changes
  • Recurring problems with faulty equipment

Beat the blues

The solution(s) required will depend on the specific circumstances affecting your team, but consider:

  • Securing budget for personal development during affected periods, and giving your team creative challenges to keep them engaged
  • Being flexible with working hours, and open to discussions about workload
  • Sharing the company vision for the coming months, and explaining how employees will benefit if targets are hit
  • Recognising individual and team achievements on a regular basis, and offering incentives for great work
  • Consulting the team on upcoming changes, and/or offering a feedback mechanism so their voice is heard
  • Giving a clear timescale for the replacement of faulty equipment
  • Leading by example – ensure you’re cheerful and proactive, and deliver what you set out to.

3. Eating, sniffing and talking

Research by the RNLI shows that people are more likely to be irritated in the workplace when they’re suffering the January blues, with noisy eating, sniffing, and talking too loudly on the phone the main culprits. Too many (or too lengthy) meetings are often also cited as a key annoyance in the office. Distractions such as these can be productivity killers, so it’s worth trying to address them.

Beat the blues

You clearly can’t stop people eating noisily or sniffing. But you could consider small alterations to the office environment, such as asking people to eating lunch in a designated dining area if you have one (this also gets people away from their screens), or providing free boxes of tissues by desks. The meetings issue is simpler to address; aim to reduce the amount of time spent in meetings by eg 50 per cent, consult your team on how to achieve this, and review results monthly (not in a meeting!).

4. Seasonal stress

Research suggests that the period after Christmas can see anxiety and distress levels rise by a third, with work and relationship worries most to blame. January is also most likely to see people struggling with financial problems after the expense of Christmas and the Boxing Day sales, plus the yawning gap between pay days; it’s no coincidence that the UK’s Debt Awareness Week falls in this month.

Stress can affect physical well-being too, increasing sleep problems and potentially making people more susceptible to illness.

Beat the blues

Of course, business owners can’t address all the personal issues on their teams, but there are ways to support your employees if stress levels are affecting their performance. You could, for example:

    • Hold regular 121 sessions or retrospectives at the end of the day (or week), so team members can get issues off their chest before they leave
    • Ensure the first day – and week – back in the office is as positive as possible
    • See if you can find budget to subsidise relaxing activities such as on-site massages or yoga (or propose nearby activities to your team)
    • Source independent information packs on managing debt and stress and make these centrally available
    • Provide ample opportunities to feel good – for example, organising volunteering or charity activities

Finally, it’s time to dispel the idea that longer hours result in more outputs. Studies continue to show that shorter work days can increase productivity, and result in a happier workforce.
While it may not be possible or practical to do this in your business, focusing on being flexible, and ensuring people take their lunch break and go home on time could see surprisingly positive effects.

*Note that a small proportion of people suffer from the more severe Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a recognised form of seasonal depression. You can find out more on the Mind website.

Further reading on motivation

Ben Lobel

Delphine Hintz

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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