Why is January traditionally a bad month for business?

Why is January traditionally a bad month for business?

Why is January traditionally a bad month for business? 1920 1280 Scott Read

I think January is a conflict. It’s an exciting time for businesses because it’s a chance to restart again – employees return to work fresh, and are raring to go because they’ve had a nice period of time off. Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve always encouraged the business to have a bit of down time over Christmas, because it’s traditionally a difficult time to make meaningful decisions, so getting that down time really helps employees. Unfortunately, the flip side is that as January progresses, the whole concept of Blue Monday appears on the horizon and gets loads of press, both positive and negative.

The principle of Blue Monday was something that started as a positive to help identify, not just to individuals, but also to businesses, that there’s a time in that month of January where employees could be under increased stress and pressure, and genuinely just feel rubbish. The post-Christmas blues, cold dark nights, and the fact that their latest credit card bill has just arrived with all their Christmas food shopping, with the realisation that, “oh, I got through it all, but now I’ve got to pay for it all.” It can be stressful.

I think this year also, added into that, the fact that people are already feeling the pinch, people are already stretched, there’s already a cost-of-living crisis. So, I don’t quite know how Blue Monday will be perceived. It could almost be bigger and louder than ever, or it could also be just another blow to the UK economy or the UK employees that says “do you know what life’s hard, life’s difficult.” Another thing to bear in mind is the sheer amount of workers that have been striking as well in December, whose pay will be adversely affected by those number of working days, they’ve nobly given up to make the stand they’re standing. So, finances will be tight for millions of people this month.

The Blue Monday movement to encourage conversation, rather than just sitting there reflecting on how we feel, has turned this time of year into an opportunity as an employer to try and create a conversation, a debate, a safe environment, a forum, where people can go to get some advice, get some help, realise they’re not on their own. I think it was the Samaritans who started to take a slightly different approach, and again, I would certainly advocate for that. But again, the biggest challenges businesses have is that financial pressures are probably still the biggest or second biggest taboo that people don’t want to talk about. According to Lloyds Banking Group survey in 2019, 50% of UK adults believe discussing personal money matters is taboo. Another study by OnePoll in December 2021 revealed that over a third of British people struggle to discuss money, and one in ten people are not willing to discuss finances – even with their partner. So, whilst talking, sharing, and seeking help, support and guidance is the right thing to do, it’s still discussing finances is a sensitive subject area that so many people are just not prepared to visit.

So, the Samaritan’s ‘Brew Monday’ campaign is a brilliant idea, but it won’t work for everybody. What businesses have got to think about is a multi-layered strategy of what they’re trying to do. A conversation and a cup of tea is brilliant with the right people, but is there also somewhere confidential people can phone and talk to? Is it also layered up with a financial plan to try and support your employees? What have you done prior to Christmas? Had you avoided doing anything because you were waiting for the pinch after? If you haven’t done anything, January has got to be the perfect time to do something, right? If you can help employees, then do so.

In your experience of managing people and working in employee engagement, how is January in comparison to other months?

I think it’s a difficult question to answer, because if you work in employee engagement, you’re probably more attuned to having to do something to look after your employees every month anyway. So therefore, the shock of January is less of a shock, because you know it’s coming, you’ve tried to take that into account as part of your employee engagement strategy for the full year.

I think what you do see is an influx of people, clients, being more interested in coming up with engagement strategies at the beginning of the year. That could be due to spotting that there are some challenges and fixes that need to be made, or it could be just one of those New Year’s resolutions of “we need to do more of this”. Unfortunately, so many of these resolutions then fall away as the year unfolds, and you’re left with just activity at the beginning of the year. So I think there is a little more focus around employee engagement in the first part of the year, for those reasons. But again, it comes down to the strategy you start at the beginning of the year, needing to be planned out for the whole year. Not just “right, this is what we’re going to do this month” because it’s then very easy to forget that February and March are just as important for supporting employees.

I always remembered that February and March were almost the best months of the year financially, bizarrely. One is the time between paydays between January and February (or February and March dependent on pay date), which always feels shorter because it’s such a short month. The other is the fact that you don’t have to pay your council tax payment in February and March which always means there’s that little extra money in the pot, to think “what bill can I pay now with that money that would normally pay the council tax?” Obviously counterbalanced that council tax normally goes up again in April, but you know in reality there are little things like that which you still need to think about strategy wise, what you’re going to do to follow on from it.

To sit down and have a conversation in January is brilliant, or highlighting the levels of support is brilliant, but that needs to continue throughout the year. I think there’s never been a more relevant time to have a conversation than the current cost of living crisis, and I don’t see that that’s changing anytime soon. The Bank of England hiked UK interest rates by 0.5 percentage points to 3.5% in December, its ninth consecutive rate increase, and I suspect they could go up again, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

What are the key signs to look out for when it comes to helping employees in January? 

If we’re talking about, as a result of the financial pressures, this definitely isn’t just about January. I think they’re the same signs throughout the year. People becoming reserved, people being distracted with other things, people not looking like they’re focused or able to concentrate and their mind is elsewhere, could well be because it is. And I think you’ve got to try and find time to sit and talk to people. That’s what your line managers are for. Are you gearing your line managers up with the right skillset and knowledge to be able to go and have those conversations? I imagine every organisation will be setting objectives for the beginning of the year. How many of those conversations are you asking about “how are you personally, how are you coping, what are your challenges away from work?” Not that you can necessarily create a bespoke plan for every individual, because each person’s circumstances are different, but it’s worth considering that kind of wellbeing check.  Again, it will really grate if businesses haven’t had any previous conversations and haven’t done anything to support their employees through the cost-of-living crisis. For those businesses that have tried to show their support and that they understand the impact, I think, and I would hope that that would earn them the right to be able to ask the question of “how are you coping?” Now, whether you get the truthful answer or not, nobody can ever tell. But I think if you’ve earned the right to ask how people are coping, the feedback and the anecdotal stuff that you get back should help you as a business shape what to do next.

What could businesses reading this do to address issues around wellbeing and morale?

I’m going to sound like a broken record but I think businesses have to have a strategy when it comes to addressing issues around wellbeing and morale. They have to think about the three key elements of wellbeing, four if you want to open it up into social wellbeing as well. They have to have a clearly defined strategy as to what they’re doing, where the employees understand the different strands of that strategy, what they’re trying to achieve, and why they’re trying to achieve it. I think then, you get an idea as to whether what you’re doing is enough.

I think when it comes to the moral side of it, it’s interesting. Sometimes you get a much more positive morale at a time where things are really dark and difficult. So just because you’ve got a brilliant morale doesn’t mean everything is fine from a wellbeing point of view. If I look at our team at the minute, it feels like we have a really good morale in the building, but I wouldn’t say everyone’s wellbeing is perfect, so I think they are two distinctly different things. And again, it’s about having an understanding of why the two are different. Some people might not be partaking in the morale because they’re struggling with their wellbeing, in terms of financial or emotional wellbeing, they could be stressed, and that could be a sign as to why they’re not getting involved in the morale element or the engagement element of the business. Conversely, you could have someone who’s the heart and soul of the office from a morale point of view, because it’s the best distraction from the turmoil that’s going on at home or in their own life. It’s not the same for everybody. You need to be focussed and care about everyone and try and come up with a plan for everyone, but the ones that are the biggest problems if you misidentify it, are the ones where they withdraw from work because of all financial pressures and it becomes a spiral, especially when there is no form of understanding or communication. Because they withdraw from work, their performance suffers. As a business then you’re under pressure, or there is a temptation to performance manage, which can put their job at risk, which then ironically means that their financial situation is more unstable than it was before.

If there was a book called “these are the signs to look out for”, it would be lovely, unfortunately there’s not, everyone’s different. Those behaviour models, you’ll have some people who want to talk about everything and will come in and tell you about everything, and other people who will just sit there being the best friend and support to that person, but actually be in a bigger hole themselves. And unfortunately, that’s just the nature of human beings, everyone’s different and you need to be aware and prepare for that.

Scott Read, CEO of Employee Services at Growth Partners

Scott Read Growth Partners discusses the link between employee engagement and retention

Scott Read is a results-driven business leader with a proven track record in helping employers strategise key business growth through employee engagement.

Want to know more?

You can read more about Scott’s thoughts on employee engagement and the key to retaining staff or download Scott’s five-point-plan to drive employee engagement.

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