The Sunday Night Blues and their impact on the workforce

Is the anxiety of a looming work week impacting your people’s health and productivity? Kirstin Furber, People Director at Channel 4, is on a mission to find out. We met with her to discuss her ground-breaking new research project with Exeter University.

In her pursuit of getting the best out of employees, Kirstin has long considered the impact of Sunday night worries on the workforce. To date, no one has validated this common phenomenon with research to truly understand its impact.

Worrying about work in time off isn’t necessarily confined to Sunday night. If employees can’t properly switch off when they’re not at work, it’s likely to interfere with their personal time, and impact on their wellbeing and productivity when they are at work.

Kirstin sat down with Dorothy Day, our Chief People Officer, to talk about her inspiration for commissioning the research, what she hopes to unveil, and – drawing on her own experiences at Channel 4 – what managers can do in the interim to support their staff.

So Kirstin, what are the Sunday Night Blues and why should leaders take note?

"As you know, the world is a complex, complicated, and competitive place. We are all learning how to manage hybrid working, and let's face it, we've got an economic crisis going on too. There are political challenges alongside supply chain issues, and for me this means that organisations need to be on their best game to really be competitive. That requires both innovation and people to be working at their best.  

"For me, in terms of the conversations I've had, it’s clear that if we are to be at our best, switching off is vital to recharge our batteries at the weekend (whether that’s a traditional weekend or time out in the shift pattern). It’s a key time to physically rest, gain perspective, switch off mentally and be present with family or friends.

"The ‘Sunday night feeling’, where people worry about going into work on the Monday, often starts much earlier in the day, eating into valuable time out which can affect relationships and performance levels. So, you’re already starting to physically and mentally be ‘at work’, and what that might mean is you are taking away the perspective rebalance that the weekend/time out should give you. If you think of your body as an electric car, you’d only be getting, say, 80% of the recharge benefit, so whilst you’ll still be able to perform to an extent, it won’t necessarily be to your fullest capacity.

"You are essentially starting your week early. Not only that, but if you’re worried about going back, you won’t start Monday in a great place, you won’t be at your best, and worse still, these feelings may also go on for days after.

"So, there's an economic impact by way of productivity losses for the individual, their manager and their organisation. That's important for all leaders to understand and that’s why I embarked on this piece of research with Exeter University."

What was it that made you curious about the Sunday Night Blues to commission the research?

"I've been blogging on for quite a few years now and this idea started to resonate as I talked more to colleagues and peers about their wellbeing. More and more people would say they had experienced the Sunday Night Blues.

"It’s really important that in this world of data, we can validate our initial views so we can tap into what the truly important things are and where we need to focus."

What are your primary goals of this research?

"Not many people have talked about the Sunday Night Blues in this way. I really believe this is an opportunity to uncover what leaders and organisations can do to help people to be their best selves every working day of the week. I was really pleased that this could be academically validated so we can get underneath the skin of this phenomenon.

"There are three phases to the research:

  • In phase one, which we’ve just completed, we conducted interviews with volunteers from a range of professions and organisations. We sought to qualify what the Sunday Night Blues were, whether they truly exist, and if so, how they were manifested.  
  • In phase two, which we’re just data crunching now, we asked our survey sample to articulate their specific feelings on a Sunday and a Monday over the course of two weekends.  
  • Phase three will launch later this year. The plan is to do something quite big at this point. Watch this space..."

Why did you choose to partner with Exeter University?

"Exeter University has a good business school with a strong reputation, so I spoke with them to see if they’d be interested in collaborating and the research concept just grew from there."

Do you have any high-level findings you can share with us at the moment?

"So far, the research has essentially determined that this phenomenon really does indeed exist and that we can do something about it, which is great news.  

"We also found that the response is very much down to the individual. Wellbeing-potential development is very personal – that certainly came through in the sample.

"From our sample, it seemed to get worse if someone knew they were going into quite a difficult week; for example, a difficult meeting or high expectations to deliver a result, or a very long and unfinished to-do list from the week before, creating specific anxieties. There was reduced anxiety, however, where there was no commute required on the Monday morning. Finally, there were some definite views around the manifestation of real, physical symptoms in terms of feeling sick and having restless sleep."

What can leaders do to better support their people’s mental wellbeing and engagement in this respect?

"The research will help to validate the detail over the coming months, but there are several things that leaders can do in terms of altering their stance and creating a supportive work environment:

  • Provide meaning and purpose to the task – think carefully why you’re asking for something to be completed and whether your deadlines are fair. Give people time to complete it well and consider whether your demands are reasonable.
  • Monday morning space – when you look at your working week, do you have an update meeting on a Monday morning at 8:30 or 9:00? For many people, this type of approach can be very stressful, especially when combined with a commute. So, consider building it in later for everyone to be able to catch up from the week prior in their own time.
  • Be conscious of the impact of your own work style – what pressure are you creating if you send masses of emails out over the weekend or a Monday morning? How much are you hassling for immediate answers? How many messages are you sending via different channels? Are you encouraging an ‘always on’ mentality?  
  • Play to your people’s talents and preferences – it's so important that we know our team members' talents and preferences, so we can get them at their best. That way we can allocate projects that they are going to be inspired by which will help motivate them on Monday mornings!
  • Care and connect with your people – if people don’t feel they can bring their whole self to work, you won’t necessarily know what their performance enablers or inhibitors are and how you can get the best out of them. Really spend time listening to what they’re saying and play this back to them, to show them you’ve listened and empathise."

On a broader basis, what can organisations do to support their people’s wellbeing, in light of the current socio-economic and political environment?

"Be clear about your purpose and direction. At Channel 4, for example, we’re going through a period of uncertainty, which could seriously impact on our people’s wellbeing and retention. But we have a very clear purpose and we're delivering according to that remit so they can see the commitment to our journey. We’re also communicating on a regular two-way basis even if there's nothing new to say, so our people know where we are heading, where we’re at and what they can do to help. Enabling them to be more informed and empowered helps them to feel part of it and not ‘done-to’.

"We are also thinking about the cost of living, being open and honest about what we can and can’t do. Having that two-way dialogue and seeking feedback around this topic and its impact is key to engaging our people.

"And then there's the organisation's wellness strategy. I don’t see this as a lonely pillar out on its own, but completely embedded into an organisation’s culture and a foundation component that trumps everything else. So, organisations need to consider how wellbeing underpins their ways of working.

"Human beings, however, are complex and we’ve seen from the early research findings that everyone is different. So, it can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Organisations need to talk to and engage with their people to learn what matters most to them as individuals. They need feedback from diverse employee representative groups to drive an inclusive, total wellbeing management approach that gets the best out of everyone.

"Not only will this help to create an environment that works to banish those Sunday Night Blues, it will also drive organisational performance to be able to compete more effectively in this increasingly complex, competitive, and uncertain world."

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