Surviving the Stresses of the Holiday Season

The holiday season is supposed to be a relaxing time meant for spending time with friends and family as a way to reflect back on the year. In reality however, the holidays come filled with stress of all varieties that leads to distractions and accidents. There are work, family, and friend obligations that all need attention and in the end the holidays can feel more like a burden than a chance to recuperate. Here is a guide to the holidays, with information about the effects.

Motor vehicle accidents and fatalities increase around the holidays with the stress and distraction that the season brings.  It’s a widespread problem. Nearly a quarter of Americans reported feeling “extreme stress” come holiday time, according to a poll by the American Psychological Association. Holiday stress statistics show that up to 69 percent of people are stressed by the feeling of having a “lack of time,” 69 percent are stressed by perceiving a “lack of money,” and 51 percent are stressed out about the “pressure to give or get gifts.” 

The stress and anxiety of the holiday season, especially during the months of November and December (and to a lesser extent, just before Valentine’s Day) can manifest in symptoms managers need to look out for: headaches, sleep disturbances, fatigue, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, short temper, upset stomach, low job satisfaction and morale, aching muscles (including lower back pain), loss of appetite, changes in behavior while at work, and a decline in productivity and work performance.

Companies need also to deal with “presentism” on the job—employees who show up for work with hidden ills, such as stress-related mental and physical ailments. They’re present at work but are underperforming. With absenteeism, you know when someone doesn’t show up for work, but presentism isn’t always apparent. You often can’t tell when, or how much, illness or a medical condition or stress is hindering someone’s performance. “Outwardly, you look fine,” said one employee who muddled through her days, in an article in the Harvard Business Review. “People don’t see how you feel.”

During holiday time, stress is ratcheted up by a number of factors: lack of money, shopping decisions and deadlines, parties, strained family relations, pressures to please family and friends and have “the perfect” holiday, and the media bombardment of happy, smiling families and friends enjoying holiday festivities. There’s also the increased vulnerability to succumb to recent personal losses—the death of a spouse, child, relative or close friend; a divorce; or the breakup of a relationship.

Companies need to understand the often invisible impact that the holidays can have on stress levels and productivity. Part of becoming aware is listening to your employees and watching out for signs of stress, such as declines in productivity, quality, teamwork, and morale, and a spike in injuries and near-misses. For example, a department head in a small public-service organization sensed an escalating level of tension and deteriorating morale among her staff, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported in its publication, “STRESS… at Work” (publication number 99-101). In her department, health symptoms such as headaches seemed to be on the rise. She held a series of all-hands meetings with employees to explore her concerns. Because she was a skilled leader who had the trust and respect of her employees, they were able to freely express their perceptions about the scope and sources of stress and about possible solutions to problems. 

At holiday time, you can educate your employees about the effect of the added pressures of the season. They might have stress symptoms or complaints but not realize the source, so you can help by perhaps providing employees with a more flexible schedule during November and December to accommodate the added demands outside the office.  Other ways that you can help include counseling employees to power down their smartphones to give themselves some boundaries; relieve neurological fatigue by periodically walking away from their computer screens; listen to their bodies for signs of stress; and recount the benefits of adhering to a regular sleep schedule. It’s also important to emphasize eating well, exercising, relaxing, planning ahead, not being too hard on oneself, and not expecting the holidays to come off “perfectly.”

One-on-one coaching might be part of your role as a manager. If so, be clear about what’s causing your concerns without putting an employee on the defensive by breaking out a list of specific observations with dates and times. Show you care by asking “What can I do to help?” Focus on the issues and not the personality. Intruding on an employee’s “private space” can be awkward, and many managers are reluctant to do so, but the alternative might be accidents, injury, or continued deteriorating work performance. And although you’re not a mental health specialist, you can point an employee to those professional resources if needed. Your workplace will be healthier, safer and more productive if you get involved and show support—and the holidays will be less stressful for you, too. 

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