Lead Behavioural Scientist scarlettabbott
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Happy New Year 2021. Woman's hand writing 2020 Goals in notebook decorated with Christmas decorations on the tricolor background. Top view, flat lay
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The power of a fresh start: how HR can energise employees for 2021

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After a tough year, many of us feel ready to start afresh in 2021, but how can we energise teams who may be feeling low during this time of uncertainty?

4th Jan 2021
Lead Behavioural Scientist scarlettabbott
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Most of us would agree that 2021 couldn’t have come fast enough. The stress of our pandemic year has taken a huge toll on our physical and mental wellbeing, and employees are looking for a light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s important to remember that we don’t need the New Year to make progress toward our goals and improve our lives.

Could 2021 be that light? The New Year is normally a time of promise, potential and a chance to hit the reset button. It’s an opportunity to make resolutions and foster healthier behaviours, and the reason we see gyms and diet companies do a roaring trade.

Harnessing the motivational power of new beginnings offers an important moment in the internal communications content calendar too – to align to new strategies, double down on purpose and set out the stall for a productive 12 months ahead. After a year of so much relentless uncertainty, however, will we still feel the same sense of renewal this time?

New Year, new you?

What makes the arbitrary passing from one year to the next so powerful to many? Researchers have sought to understand how certain situations, like the beginning of the year, motivate people to pursue their goals. A predominate theory is the fresh start effect.

The fresh start effect explains how certain milestones — a new year, a birthday, a new job, even the start of a new week — can be a chance to start over. These markers inspire aspirational behaviours, such as saving money or wanting to achieve a health goal, because they break our focus on the day-to-day. It’s a chance to catch our breath and truly reflect on where we are and where we want to go.

Will we feel the fresh start effect this year?

It's unlikely people felt refreshed and rested following the December holiday season. With Covid-19 restrictions still in place for many, the festive period didn’t provide a mental break from our familiar rituals.

Without the usual New Year Eve’s celebrations that signal the turning of the year, most of us didn’t feel that sense of a ‘fresh start’ at all. Indeed, 1 January felt just like 31 December. We’ve picked up where we left off – feeling tired before we’ve even begun. That means we need to give the fresh start effect a little boost.

How can we help people to press reset?

The boundaries between work and home have never been so blurred. It’s much easier to start work earlier and end work later when the commute is just 20 steps between your bedroom and home workspace. That makes it difficult to create space to stop.

When we reflect, we’re able to slow down, take a breath and press reset. Encouraging people to take a day off that’s devoted to reflection is a great place to start. Many people will have holidays left over due to travel restrictions. Advise employees to take the time anyway.

Reflection is easier than most think

Reflection doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so some colleagues might need guidance, which you can share in your wellness communications.

For example, ask people to remember their accomplishments, understand the importance of what they did and analyse patterns in their behaviour — both helpful and hurtful. Then they can reflect upon what they’ve discovered about themselves along the way.

One of the easiest ways to reflect is also a tried-and-true form of exercise: a walk. Being in nature eases stress, lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety and improves your mood. It’s also a chance to let the mind wander. When the mind wanders, it creates the space to reflect.

Goal setting in tough times keeps us going

Part of the New Year ritual is setting goals for the upcoming year. Reflection helps to do that. Once we’ve reflected, we need to look ahead and plan how we’ll get there.

Having goals is great for both motivation and morale. It helps provide short-term motivation to take the actions needed to achieve a longer-term vision – and staying focused on that vision is a huge morale booster.

Using the fresh start effect all year long

It’s important to remember that we don’t need the New Year to make progress toward our goals and improve our lives.

Identify points in time that can act as milestones. They can be based on events, such as when someone starts a new job with you. The onboarding experience is a great opportunity to encourage healthy behaviours.

Encourage employees to create exciting plans for the future. This not only serves as a morale booster – people need things to look forward to – but the time period before and after the event can also serve as a trigger for a fresh start.

Calendar-based milestones still have a place, too. Health insurers in America have been known to send birthday cards to members. These birthday cards also conveniently encourage people to schedule their annual preventive check-up, if they haven’t already.

It’s all about reinvention

Employee testimonials of successful change can serve to inspire others – and you can use them all year long. People have the power to change whenever they want. No New Year necessary.

Interested in this topic? Read The big reset: HR’s 20 priorities for building a better workplace.

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