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December 02, 2020

Mental Health and the Holidays: Managing Stress and Negative Emotions

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Workplace Wellbeing

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year—except when it’s not. The holidays can evoke a range of emotions from joy to sadness. Add the anxiety of coronavirus to this year’s festivities, and the end of the year may prove more stressful than usual for many Americans.

There are additional personal choices that will need to be made during the holidays this year because of COVID-19. Deciding whether to gather with friends and family to celebrate or concern of being exposed to the virus may negatively affect employees and add to what weighs on their minds as they try to focus on their jobs. 

How holidays can affect mental health

Making the mental health of employees a priority all year round should be a goal for employers. Even when that goal is achieved, employers need to understand how the holidays contribute additional issues to the negative emotions of workers. And, employees should recognize that these additional mental pressures—both those they’re aware of on the surface and those that may not be so obvious—may be enhanced during the age of coronavirus and present themselves in various ways, including as:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Relationship issues
  • Depression
  • Sleeplessness and fatigue

An employee experiencing holiday stress may show signs of problems that are more serious than typical workplace stress, according to HR Daily Advisor. Those signs may include: a disinterest in company activities; a change in usual dress and grooming habits; increased physical problems such as headaches, panic attacks, anxiety, and sleeplessness or fatigue; withdrawing from socializing with other employees; increased absenteeism; and showing up for work under the influence or hungover. 

The key to recognizing that these behaviors are due to holiday stress is that they are not the typical behaviors an employee displays. They manifest and possibly increase as the holidays—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and others—get closer. 

Facts and figures: Holidays and mental health

A Healthline survey took a look at holiday stress and found that over 60% of all respondents felt some stress during the holiday season. Broken down by demographics, 62% of baby boomers, 65% of Generation X, and 61% of millennials felt some level of stress during the season. 

The biggest stressor on respondents was finances. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed named it as their top concern. Managing to continue to eat healthy and exercise also weighs heavy on people’s minds—16% of them are worried about it. Picking out the right gift is a concern to 15% of respondents and scheduling issues make 12% of them stressed.

Add work to the mix and holiday stress increases even more. A Robert Half survey found that job responsibilities can bring additional worries. Balancing holiday events and work obligations was the top stresser for the 2,700 workers surveyed—32% of them found the balancing act difficult. Another concern for 23% of employees is a heavier workload waiting upon return because of time off. 

The pandemic stress that’s been building all year isn’t going to disappear because it’s the most wonderful time of the year, either. One big concern on most people’s minds is family health. An October health tracking poll found that two-thirds of the American public is now concerned about their family getting sick from coronavirus, up 13 percentage points from April. Holiday gatherings are bound to increase those concerns. 

How to support your employees during the holidays

Fortunately, employers can assist their workers in managing stress and negative emotions. Acknowledge to workers that the additional mental weight of the holidays is understandable. Let them know they will not be penalized for expressing they are under added strains, and put specific plans into action to mitigate workplace stress during the holidays.

Make employees aware of assistance

HR Daily Advisor suggests reminding employees about the help that is available through their employee assistance program (EAP). Many EAPs have 24-hour phone crisis support and allow for confidential short-term counseling. Additional help an EAP can provide includes referrals for programs that offer specialized care, services that help manage stress, and programs for substance abuse. 

Increase workplace flexibility

Getting everything done that needs to be done for the holidays can be a big stressor, especially for parents and caretakers. Employers can help manage this specific holiday stress by allowing employees a more flexible schedule when possible. Even if it’s not possible to give employees extra time out of the office, permitting them to take care of some personal holiday business—such as online shopping or returning personal emails or invitations—can give them some breathing room outside of work.  

Another simple way to reduce some stress in the workplace during the holidays is to be flexible with the dress code. The time saved in ironing clothes or in having to run home to change before going to an evening holiday event can be helpful.

Schedule workplace holiday events during work hours

Workplace holiday events that happen outside of normal work hours can place additional stress on an already busy schedule. Even during coronavirus, many employers are planning virtual holiday events. When these events happen during work hours, employees’ personal time is freed up to take care of personal holiday responsibilities and activities. 

Be extra aware of those who have suffered a loss

Sadness during the holidays is common for those who have experienced the death of a loved one or a pet. It can also occur in those who have recently had a romantic break up. Because of the pandemic this year, employees may have experienced the loss of several friends or relatives, and they’ll be facing a holiday season where they may not be spending as much time surrounded by those who can support them. 

The Society for Human Resources Management recommends acknowledging those losses to let employees know you remember what they’ve been through by asking “How are you doing?” or saying “I know this time of year can be hard.”

How to manage your mental health during the holidays

There are ways that anyone can help to manage personal mental health during the holidays. 

Don’t rely on alcohol and drugs

Overindulging may seem like a good short-term fix for relieving holiday stress and anxiety, but in the end they make the situation worse. Instead of turning to substances as a stress reliever, try exercise, mindfulness activities such as meditation or listening to uplifting music.

Volunteer and give

Volunteer at soup kitchens or local charities. If your budget allows for it, donate food and money to help make other people’s holidays a little better. Giving of your time and resources can help combat depression and give you a sense of accomplishment during the holidays.

Give yourself permission to say, “No”

A packed schedule of activities during the holiday season can take the joy out of the actual holidays. Say no to events that you really don’t want to attend, whether they are in-person gatherings or a video-conference happy hour with friends or colleagues.

Coping with holiday stress and blues

At Spring Health, we help employers manage their employees’ mental health at the holidays and all year long. Contact us to learn more or schedule a demo to see how Spring Health can support your company’s team members.

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