Why the January work slump hits so hard – and how to handle it

After the post-Christmas ennui has ended and we’ve cleared our way through all the ‘New Year, new me’ hype, we’re faced with a fresh battle at this time of the year: the January work slump.

You know the one. It’s like the Sunday scaries, turned up to 11. It’s low-level dread about heading to work, every evening before you go to bed and when you wake up to your blaring alarm. It’s feeling totally demotivated, and you’d really prefer to just quit your job and begin a sparkling new career in the field of sitting on the sofa under a blanket.

The slump makes sense when you consider all the factors.

You’ve got the comedown of Christmas, when all the festivities and that end goal of some time off have disappeared.

It’s cold and dark.

This year, there’s a tough lockdown and working from home burnout to deal with, too.

Plus, I don’t know about you, but it seems like everyone on my social media feeds is excitedly spilling about their brand new job – which only serves to make your job feel old, worn, and covered in dust.

‘The January work slump is a combination of factors, physical and psychological,’ says Stuart Duff, head of development at workplace psychology consultancy, Pearn Kandola.

‘January also has a post-party feeling – having looked forward to and enjoyed all of the festivities of December, now we have to accept that the break is over and it’s back to the routine.

‘The biggest underlying psychological factor is perhaps down to January being the first month of the year, giving us the feeling that we’re starting all over again.

‘This drives us to set a lot of goals and expectations for ourselves, but these usually result in disappointment – normally about halfway through the month…’

All that means that right now, as we hit the middle bit of January, we’re bound to feel rubbish about our work.

But what can we do about it? And how do we know if this is genuinely just a slump or a sign we should hightail out of the role? We chatted with some experts to find out.

Signs you’re experiencing a January work slump

‘The most obvious signs are low energy and a lack of focus, which will make it difficult to concentrate and, in turn, reduce our ability to contribute to meetings,’ explains Stuart. ‘We also tend to feel disappointment and frustration – irritability is a common indicator.’

Along with that, you might feel the added weight of lockdown in the form of burnout.

‘During these difficult times, we’re likely to experience a mixture of emotions,’ Charlotte Davies, LinkedIn careers expert, tells us. ‘Our research in partnership with The Mental Health Foundation found that 56% of people who were working remotely from home in the first lockdown were feeling more anxious or stressed.

‘A third were having difficulty sleeping and 30% had experienced increased levels of anxiety – distress that if left unmanaged could lead to burnout.’

Signs of burnout:

  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Getting sick more often
  • Gum disease
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Lack of motivation
  • Low mood
  • Being unable to stop thinking about work
  • Impaired memory
  • Struggling to make decisions
  • Feeling irritable or snapping at people

How to tackle the January work slump

Shake things up

Sometimes making a change can give yourself a much-needed reboot. Charlotte recommends something as simple as changing your home office set-up.

‘Find a new space to work from or make small changes to your current set-up,’ she says. ‘If you spent last year working in the kitchen, try moving to another room in the house.’

Stuart, meanwhile, urges that you do something, anything, to change up your regular working schedule to get your brain feeling active again.

‘The important thing is that whatever you do should remove yourself from of your usual working routine,’ he notes.

Take on a new project

The key thing in defeating the work slump is getting excited about something again.

Have a think about the bits of your job that spark some genuine passion, and come up with a way to expand on that.

You might then want to pitch a new project to your boss or ask for more responsibility in a certain area.

Check in on your work-life balance

Working yourself to the bone is a surefire way to hate your job, even if it previously gave you joy. It’s vital that you ensure your life isn’t all about work, and that you give yourself proper downtime to deflate from the day.

Charlotte tells us: ‘Switching off from work at home is never easy – but it’s important to set ourselves work boundaries to achieve a better work-life balance.

‘We’ve seen lots of examples on LinkedIn of people sharing what they do to get away from work, including making time for walks, blocking time on their calendars for breaks, or repurposing their commute time for something fun.’

Find a passion outside of work

If you’re having one of those periods where your job just isn’t much fun, you’ll need to make sure you have something to look forward when you’re not working.

‘Learning a new language, trying a different recipe, or joining a new class (online, of course) could all increase personal interest and stimulation,’ recommends Stuart.

Set a realistic to-do list

Constantly feeling run-down? You might be taking on too much.

Setting yourself unachievable goals puts you on an endless cycle of working too hard, missing targets, and then beating yourself up for failing, which only makes you more demotivated.

Get realistic about your workload.

Charlotte says: ‘Taking the time to adjust our to-do-lists can make us much more productive and motivated.

‘Add time slots for completing each action – this may change throughout the day, but it will help you manage expectations of yourself and your colleagues.

‘Don’t forget to include time for checking and responding to emails, as well as adding short breaks throughout the day to avoid burnout.’

Connect with people

You’re not an island. You really do need some form of social connection.

‘Because of the new way of working, we aren’t having the normal casual check-ins, the coffee trips and the watercooler chats we typically would,’ says Charlotte. ‘In absence of the day to day office routines, make sure that you’re taking the time to reach out to people in your communities and talk about how we’re feeling – you’ll be surprised at how many people are feeling the same as you.’

Check in with your manager

Yes, it feels daunting, but it can be helpful to let your boss know when you’re feeling demotivated.

Have a think about what you need right now. Are you feeling underappreciated? Would having more regular catch-ups help? Is your workload too heavy, or are you not being challenged?

Get support

What might look like a general work slump could be depression. It could be a sign that you’re just not coping, and that you need some support.

Don’t be afraid to ask about your workplaces’s provision of mental health care, or give the employee assistance programme a ring.

‘If you’re experiencing any of these feelings, the earlier you reach out to someone, the easier it is to get back on track,’ says Charlotte.

How do you know if it’s time to quit?

It can be tricky to know if you’re just experiencing the usual post-Christmas blues or if your job is genuinely terrible.

A good way to reflect is to consider how long you’ve been feeling this way. Did January bring with it the Sunday night dread, or have you long dreamed of a dramatic resignation?

Have a proper sit-down and write out a list of the issues with your job and what’s causing you misery.

Now go through them and see which are directly caused by work, and which are less specific. A lack of sunlight, for example, isn’t something you can blame your job for.

Then go through both the general issues and the work-specific ones, and question what you can change. Some will be easily fixed – you’re exhausted by early starts, for example, so you should ask your boss for flexible working.

If there are a lot of issues that have been happening for ages, aren’t able to be fixed, and are representative of the key components of your job or your workplace’s culture, it might be time to consider looking for a new role.

Just try to look for other opportunities and think carefully before quitting. This is a big decision, and not one that should be made in haste while in a January slump haze.

‘The past year has given us plenty of time to look inward and think about our priorities and passions in life,’ says Charlotte. ‘I’d encourage you to put yourself out there and chat to people about new opportunities.’

What should managers be doing about the January work slump?

The January work slump is a very common phenomenon, so bosses need to be aware that it’s likely to happen – and be proactive in helping workers through it.

That will involve regularly communicating with people and considering their needs, rather than waiting for them to come to you.

That’s especially important when we’re working from home.

‘As a manager, it’s important to check-in with employees regularly to understand how they’re feeling in these difficult times and take action if you think they’re feeling overwhelmed or burnt out,’ says Charlotte.

‘Many businesses are taking steps to combat the negative effects of remote working, with the introduction of professional mental health support (44%), banning out of hours emails (33%) and offering yoga or meditation sessions (36%).

‘Ultimately there’s no one-size-fits-all solution – but many organisations are adapting to this new way of working in a bid to support employees and inspire them to feel motivated for the year ahead.’

Stuart adds: ‘Be alert to the slump. Talk to your team and allow them to share how they might be feeling.

‘We know from our own research that creating an inclusive team environment means having a sense of psychological safety – feeling able to be open – as well as a sense of trust.

‘If you can nurture this in your team, you won’t necessarily avoid your team experiencing the January slump, but they are less likely to feel that they need to quit their role or change their career as result of it.’

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