The festive spirit is everywhere during the holiday season. For some, each day feels like waking up to a holiday song — “children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile.” But, for others, it can be the loneliest and most stressful time of the year. According to a 2015 Healthline survey, 44% of people say that they are stressed during the holidays, with more than 18% reporting that they’re “very stressed.” Almost half the respondents cited finances as the main culprit for their tension, while being over-scheduled, choosing the right gifts, and remaining healthy also contributed to people’s holiday woes.
“The holidays are filled with both joy and stress,” shares Ellen Braaten, PhD, in Harvard Medical School’s blog, On the Brain. Dr. Braaten blames our increased multi-tasking during the holidays as the reason the brain’s prefrontal cortex goes into overdrive. Long-term, this high-level demand on the brain can decrease memory, halt production of new brain cells, and cause existing brain cells to die. On the bright side, seasonal stress is acute, so it can be remedied. But preventing it all together should be the real goal.
Coping with personal stress is already challenging, but when combined with workplace stress, it’s no wonder holiday cheers soon devolve into holiday sneers. The American Psychological Association found that 38% of people say their stress increases during the holidays — only 8% of people say they feel happier. Employees are often contending with shortened deadlines, meeting expectations for the end of the fiscal year, and coping with stressed-out customers, which are just a few of the reasons for their increased anxiety. The resulting costs for employers can be quite significant.
Based on an analysis by Peakon of more than 15,000 employees across the U.S., the UK, the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland) and Germany, 7-10% of people reported reduced productivity for the entire month of December, with 30-40% reporting a fall in productivity by mid-December. Dr. Chris Rowley, Professor Emeritus at the University of London Cass Business School, writes in his article, “Festive Celebrations: Human Resource Impacts and Costs of Christmas,” that nearly one-half of the workforce hits “festive fizzleout” by December 18th, where they spend more time worried about the holidays than about work. Rowley claims that more than two-thirds of workers were less productive throughout December, with nearly one-half admitting that they did 10-20% less work. Reasons for reductions in output included a combination of exhaustion, lack of motivation, and even hangovers. Women tend to be hit the hardest, with nearly twice as many women reporting that they are more stressed about Christmas than men.
Unfortunately, the tools most employers use to improve company culture are backfiring. The annual holiday party is a great example. According to a 2017 survey by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., 80% of companies plan to host a holiday party. However, according to new research from MetLife Employee Benefits, 37% of employees decline to attend the company Christmas party. The most cited reason for not attending was that the holiday parties, which are typically held in the evenings, clash with family duties at home. And, for those who do attend the holiday party, there is a 77% drop in productivity the next day, with more than half of the staff wasting the first four hours of the following day because they’re recovering from the night before — which is slightly better than the 20% who call in sick. And the U.S. isn’t the only country that struggles with this dynamic. For example, the festive fallout from employee stress and lost productivity cost U.K. companies roughly £11 billion in 2016.
So how can managers help combat stress and keep both productivity and spirits up during the holiday season? Here are a just a few ways:
Be inclusive. In an interview I conducted with Ben-Saba Hasan, SVP and Chief Culture Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Walmart Inc., he shared that leaders must recognize the different ways people celebrate the holidays. “As leaders, we need to create an environment where our team members feel comfortable and safe, so that we foster greater awareness among those in the dominant culture for those whose holiday observances look different from their own.”
Mini Khroad, Chief People Officer at Khan Academy, told me in a recent interview: “The holidays should always be an important time at companies. Ensuring that employees have the ability to recognize national or other holidays, at work and in their personal lives, helps to make the workplace enjoyable for everyone.”
Protect personal time. Why not offer one extra day off leading up to the holidays for employees to attend to personal needs like gift shopping, family demands, or down-time to regroup — whatever they need. One mandatory day off can make all the difference in employee stress levels. These small but much-appreciated gestures increase loyalty and gratitude on your staff and offer long-term payoffs. Why does this matter? Research has proven that grateful staff are more engaged, community-minded, and happier at work.
Rebalance workloads. Competing demands sit at the top of employees’ stress lists. Work and home pressures converge at this time of year, and time seems highly compressed. Plan a review of the workload and see if some project deadlines can be extended into next year. “Periods of high stress such as the holiday season represent an opportunity for managers to treat employees as individuals by understanding and appropriately responding to their specific needs,” says David Almeda, Chief People Officer at Kronos. In a recent interview I had with him, he suggested that “tactics such as rebalancing workload among team members, or allowing atypical works hours for a set period of time, will deliver results, increase employee commitment, and materially decrease employee stress.”
Give time instead of gifts. Research by neuroscientists Dr. Jordan Grafman and Dr. Jorge Moll demonstrates that we are instinctually made to give. When the subjects donated to what they considered worthy organizations, brain scans revealed that parts of the midbrain lit up — the same region that controls cravings for food, and the same region that becomes active when money is added to people’s personal reward accounts. Ben-Saba Hasan connected this thinking back to his team as they bonded over volunteering in their community this season. “I believe one of the best ways to manage stress and care for yourself is when you turn your focus toward caring for others first.”
What is important for employees themselves to remember is this: most holiday-related stressors are self-imposed and preventable. Financial stress can be avoided by purchasing less, overcommitting can be averted by saying no, multitasking brains can be managed with reprioritization, and exclusion can be prevented by reaching out. Start today. Ask someone how they’re doing. Listen with compassion, empathy, and kindness. If needed, offer help.