We have entered yet another holiday season. It is a time of giving, a time of celebration, and a time of pseudoscientific advice. Even passive readers of various business and management blogs and news stories will find themselves inundated with a plethora of advice (assuming past trends apply this year, of course).
One of the biggest pieces of pseudoscientific advice will likely focus on the need for managers and businesses to double down on stress management tactics during the holiday season. One of the recurring “truths” with which we will get peppered (as we already have here) is the belief that the holidays are a time during which depression, anxiety, and sadness spike.
This, of course, is a myth, robustly debunked by a variety of sources, including the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which reports that suicide rates are actually the lowest in December.
None of this means, of course, that employees are always a barrel of sunshine and rainbows during the holidays. There are employees who may have some added mental health concerns, such as those who may be having relationship difficulties and those who have recently lost a loved one. However, the belief that holiday stress is a major mental health problem is just plain hogwash.
For example, a 2015 Healthline survey found that only 18% of people reported the holidays were very stressful, with another 44% reporting they were somewhat stressful. However, in the most recent American Psychological Association Stress in America survey, 63% of Americans reported being stressed about the future of our nation, 62% reported being stressed about money, and 61% reported being stressed about work. Hence, being stressed during the holidays doesn’t seem to be radically different from the amount of stress people experience at other times of the year.
Now, all that being said, there are some issues that surface during the holiday season that are uniquely tied to the holidays. Many of these exist as a result of a sudden shift in the demands on people’s time, energy and money (this includes have-to and want-to demands). Holiday parties, shopping, decorating the house, extra cooking and cleaning and a host of other demands often get added to people’s plates during the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Unfortunately, for many people, this increase in demands does not come with corresponding increases in time, energy or money. Instead, most employees are expected to accomplish their regularly-scheduled demands in addition to holiday-specific ones. They may cut some corners (e.g., eating out more often, cutting back on sleep) as a way to meet the time and energy requirements of these added demands. This would explain why, according to a 2006 APA survey about the holidays, more people cite fatigue than they do stress, sadness or loneliness as a negative emotion they experience during the holidays.
So, while some people may experience holiday-specific stress, this stress would not necessarily seem to be all that much more severe than stress they experience the rest of the year. Still, there are opportunities for managers and employers to intervene to some degree. Primarily this might involve the deliberate refusal to add a bunch of demands that require employees to allocate additional time and energy to work. Holiday parties may seem like an ideal opportunity to show employees they are appreciated, but for many employees, these events could become an added demand for more time and energy (to accompany the regular work demands they already have to meet).
If managers and employers want to minimize increased demands and stress during the holidays, there are three very practical recommendations they can implement:
Ensure the added time required to participate in work-related holiday festivities is accompanied by reduced expectations in other areas of work. This may sound counterproductive to the goals of corporate America, but if we want employees to be engaged in our attempts to show them how appreciated they are, these appreciation efforts cannot add time, energy, and financial demands. Otherwise, we run the risk of adding to employee stress instead of reducing it.
Offer greater workplace flexibility. Whenever possible, offer a bit more flexibility in terms of when and where employees work. Give them an opportunity to move more seamlessly between work and non-work demands so they can more effectively meet various non-work, holiday-related demands that may require added coordination. This will allow employees to spend less time and energy worrying about competing demands and more time and energy actually meeting those demands.
Allow employees to utilize some of the time off they have accrued. This can be somewhat tricky as there are often a lot of deadlines that correspond with the end of the calendar year. However, a rigid requirement to be in the office is antithetical to a desire to alleviate holiday stress. Limits may have to be set on how much time off employees can take due to impending deadlines, but any active support on this front is likely to make a difference. In addition, the greater the control employees have over which days they have off, the greater the likelihood those days will be used to respond to the demands that add to holiday stress.