The holidays are right around the corner. And while the holiday season is often depicted as a happy, joyous time, for many, the holidays can actually have the opposite effect, creating feelings of overwhelm and stress. In fact, in a Healthline survey, 44% of respondents reported feeling “somewhat stressed” during the holidays and 18% said they were “very stressed.”
Clearly, the holidays aren’t exactly a peaceful time for a lot of people — and, chances are, that includes more than a few of your employees. Let’s take a closer look at why this time of year is so stressful to begin with, and how you can help your employees manage the inevitable stress of the season so they not only make it through the holidays, but come back to work in January feeling rested, refreshed, and ready to take on the new year.
Why the Holidays Are Stressful for Employees
The holidays can be a stressful time for a variety of reasons — both in and outside of work.
“During the holidays, time becomes really stretched in the workplace,” said Katherine King, founder of Invisible Culture, a consultancy for professionals and corporations on interpersonal and intercultural workplace dynamics. “People are trying to finish projects before the break and therefore tasks become rushed.”
But the stress doesn’t end at the office. “[The holidays present] increased social and familial obligations. Employees often must juggle travel plans, children or guests at home, gift-buying, and the pressure to ‘make the holiday perfect,’” said Elizabeth Gilbert, PhD, Head of Research at Psychology Compass, a platform that offers science-backed lessons and interventions to help people improve their productivity and well-being. “Also, this time of year often reminds people of what they do not have. Employees who have lost loved ones, don’t have close family or friends, or struggle financially may be particularly depressed or anxious.”
And while the holidays can be stressful even in the best of times, the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional stressors for the 2020 holiday season — again, both in and outside of work.
“Working from home adds an additional burden because it makes it more difficult to separate work from the rest of life,” noted Gilbert. “Leaving work physically used to indicate for workers [that they] could disengage. But working from home can blur these boundaries, making employees feel like they must always be ‘on’ — checking email, available for phone calls, [and] willing to work on call.”
“And of course, COVID introduces extra worries and mental burdens outside of work,” Gilbert continued. “Many are worried about their health or the health of loved ones. And there are new social pressures, too: Some employees may be worried about disappointing friends or family who want to travel or meet up in groups, or they may be stressed about whether or not to attend events.”
These next few weeks are going to be challenging and stressful for a lot of employees. Here’s what HR and leadership can do to help employees better manage their stress during the upcoming holiday season.
1. Make time off a non-negotiable.
“People must get breaks from stress, or else chronic tension causes myriad physical and mental problems, ranging from headaches to high blood pressure to emotional burnout.” cautioned Gilbert. “These problems ultimately make employees less capable of successfully completing their work.”
If you can, consider giving your entire team a solid block of time off for the holidays (for example, closing your office between Christmas and New Year’s). If that’s not feasible, work out a schedule to ensure that every employee gets at least a few days’ break. Having that time off can help them step away from their stressors, take time for themselves, and come back to work feeling better, replenished, and more engaged and productive.
“The benefits of giving employees time to reboot their systems may not have a place on the balance sheet, but it will result in better cognitive function upon return,” said King. “This is an essential strategy for preventing conflict and workplace burnout, not to mention [promoting] creativity and [encouraging] innovative thought processes to flow.”
In addition to giving your team time off during the holidays, encourage them to take time off every day in the form of regular, short breaks, which can also help keep stress and overwhelm at bay.
“Encourage employees to schedule regular breaks during the workday — for example, 30 minutes every afternoon to walk around the neighborhood or attend an online meditation class,” recommended Gilbert.
Employees will reap the benefits of these longer blocks of time off and short, daily breaks throughout this month — and as a result, so will your organization.
2. Help your team prioritize.
One of the reasons people tend to get stressed out at work this time of year is because they feel like they need to wrap up every single project on their plate and check off every last item on their to-do list before they take time off for the holidays or before the new year begins. On top of the normal holiday stress people often experience, these pressures and deadlines (even when self-imposed) can feel overwhelming.
If you want to help your employees manage holiday stress, assist them in prioritizing their to-do lists and let them know what does — and does not — need to get done before the new year, advised Gilbert.
While you’re at it, give them as much leeway as possible to get things done. “Slow down the timelines if you can,” suggested King. “Rushing people is one of the primary ways of [causing] stress.” The more clarity your team has on what they need to get done during the holiday season — and the more time and space they have to complete those tasks — the less stressed they’re going to feel.
3. Foster open communication.
In order to help your employees better manage holiday stress, you need to know if and when they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and that means creating an environment where they feel safe to share that kind of information with HR and their managers.
“It is important to foster a culture of open communication that rewards feedback, good and bad,” said King. “Employees need to feel safe enough to speak up when they’re dealing with holiday stress.”
There are plenty of ways you can foster an environment where employees feel safe to share their struggles. For example, you can host all-hands meetings where you encourage employees to share how you can better support them, train management on how to better receive feedback, and/or have leadership openly share their own struggles dealing with holiday stress, which can show employees that it’s safe to follow their lead.
“When employees see leadership acknowledging their own struggles [and] taking time to prioritize their well-being…this creates a culture where workers are more likely to do the same,” Gilbert noted.
4. Ask the right questions.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, some employees just aren’t going to feel comfortable opening up and taking the initiative to tell you how stressed they’re feeling. They may feel the need to create a façade that everything’s fine or appear like they have it all together for the sake of professionalism.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t need support. As leaders, it’s your job to go past the façade to find out what kind of support your employees need and how you can help them get through the holidays with as little stress as possible.
When you ask your employees how they’re doing, “include some more pointed questions to encourage employees to self-reflect and provide feedback that could help you help them,” suggested Gilbert. “For instance, you could ask, ‘What is one thing we could do to help you successfully complete your obligations with less stress?’ or ‘How are you doing [with stress] compared to normal: about the same, less, or more?’”
It might take some digging, but asking the right questions can help you get deeper insight into how your employees are actually doing, which will ultimately help you more effectively support your team, even if they’re not the kind of people who wear their stress on their sleeves.
Some individuals are more comfortable sharing their experience than others, but if you want to make sure all your employees manage their stress this holiday season, you need to give extra attention to those team members who may be less likely to let you know they’re feeling overwhelmed. “Build in ways to care for all employees and support their well-being, regardless of whether any particular person is showing stress,” recommended Gilbert.
The holidays can be an extremely stressful time, and thanks to COVID, this year is going to be even more stressful than most. But these strategies will enable you to better support your staff during a challenging time of year, and help them more effectively manage their stress this season. That way, your company and all its employees (including you!) can get through the coming weeks and into the new year with as much ease and holiday cheer as possible.