Christmas: 5 ways to support colleagues who are alone

This teacher lists five useful ways you can support those who may be alone over the holidays, from checking in occasionally to reminding them of support networks available 24/7
27th December 2020, 8:00am


Christmas: 5 ways to support colleagues who are alone
Alone At Christmas: How To Support Colleagues

In a previous incarnation, I worked with a teaching team whose reliance on the group chat function was something our social-media-savvy students would have been proud of. It was a sacred, non-work related space where we became more than lecturers - we had a glimmer of a personal life.

Consequently, Christmas was prime time to share tales of laughable cooking disasters, photos of the dog having an identity crisis while sporting a pair of antlers and predictable woes of too many mince pies accompanied by team vows to diet as soon as we returned to work.

But not every team has this. More importantly, not every person wants this. After a year that has been more intense and overwhelming than any of us could have imagined, the chance to reconnect with a life outside of the education world may be more attractive than ever.

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In recent years, I have been poorly. In 2018, I was diagnosed with anorexia, depression and anxiety - I went for the triple whammy. But that year, I learned more about the importance of Christmas being a time for following my needs than I ever have before.

Therefore, if you have a colleague who may be alone during the break - or perhaps you yourself are struggling - here are some tips I have found helpful to make Christmas and new year less stressful and more empowering

Encourage them to take a break 

I'm sure many of us will at some point fire up the laptop - certainly I have been known to mark on Christmas Eve in the past. Holidays may be a chance for us to catch up and finally nail that scheme of learning that has been on our to-do list for ages, but we also need to recharge. You cannot pour from an empty cup: indulging in terrible Christmas TV can be the perfect tonic.

Check in with them occasionally

A message that shows someone is thinking about you is always welcome. It doesn't have to warrant a reply - just something along the lines of "thinking of you" is a kind sentiment. It is human instinct to want to be liked and loved.

Don't force them to spend time with people if they don't want to 

Everyone seems to say that when we are struggling mentally, we should be around people. For me, this only works so well - usually for a few hours - and then I need to be on my own and just breathe and process. There is still so much stigma, misunderstanding and misconception around mental illness that people are afraid to speak up, or are so heavily in denial (as I was) that we just glue a smile on our faces and "get on with it". This is actually exhausting. Being able to spend time alone can be very therapeutic and energising.

Remind them of support organisations available 

Most are open round the clock, including the Samaritans. Many offer a variety of methods to contact them besides the phone - for example, Shout is a text service for people in crisis. Mind runs a forum called Side by Side, where people are united by mental illness, sharing its peaks, troughs and successes. Sometimes it is easier to seek support from someone we don't know. Sometimes we just want to know that what we are experiencing is not irrational.

Tell them to do what makes them happy

Christmas carries a massive pressure and expectation to be happy and please others, but this isn't the law. Encourage your colleagues to be themselves and do what makes them feel good.

This goes for you, too - you matter just as much as anyone else and you have spent all year working for the interests of others. If you want beans on toast for dinner, then go for it. The year I was diagnosed with anorexia, I had homemade spiced parsnip and apple soup and it was lovely. It may not have been my mother's fabulous Christmas dinner (and she does an incredible roast) but I was eating and I was with my family at the table.

So take some time for yourself. Two weeks will inevitably fly by - but you have earned this, so make it work for you. I have no shame in going back to work in January and declaring that I spent my holiday sleeping and watching festive episodes of soaps that the rest of the year I couldn't care less about. And finally getting up to date with my marking, of course…Oh well. #fortheloveofteaching

The writer is a further education teacher in England

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