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Coping with Holiday Stress at Work

Compared to the holiday-harried average worker, Santa Claus has it easy. Jolly ol’ St. Nick might have to work round-the-clock to meet those holiday production demands, but at least he has a staff of well-trained professional elves to help him along, not to mention a pretty cushy schedule. Who wouldn’t love to work just one day each year?

If only everyone had it so good. Everyone is familiar with the tension that the holidays can cause at home, but the workplace can be similarly frantic and filled with anxiety during the season. The added pressures of holiday-shortened deadlines, end-of-year business demands, and crazed customers, to name a few, takes a steep toll on already frayed nerves. In a poll of 600 full-time employees, Accenture’s HR Services found that 66% of the respondents reported additional stress at work during the holidays. We asked Performance & Profits readers to rank their greatest sources of work-related holiday stress, and here’s what they said:

The extra emotional baggage many people carry with them throughout the season, which can range from mild stress to debilitating depression, makes work difficult enough. According to experts, more people become depressed or anxious during the holidays than any other time of year. Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, disappointed by unrealistic expectations and worried about money are some of the chief symptoms of the holiday blues. Many people also eat less than healthy foods as part of festivities, compounding their emotional malaise. With the season becoming longer and longer—it now begins as early as October, at least at some retailers—fatigue also begins to set in earlier.

At the office, the doldrums manifest themselves in various forms, including a disengaged work force. A study by staffing company Accountemps found that, according to 44% of surveyed executives, productivity drops off the week before the holiday. Some of that drop off in productivity, of course, is caused by relaxed and carefree employees getting into the spirit of the season. A good portion of it, however, undoubtedly results from holiday burnout.

How can organizations deal with the holiday blues? Giving employees a more flexible schedule to accommodate added burdens outside the office might help. The Accenture study found that 54% of the surveyed workers reported that flexible hours during the holidays would help alleviate workplace stress, while 26% want to telecommute, at least once in a while, until the seasonal rush passes.

“At our company, we provide a shopping day,” says Sandy Lish, founder of public relations company The Castle Group. “Each employee can take one day off between Thanksgiving and Christmas to shop. We have found that just having that one day to get out there and shop or do whatever one needs to do helps alleviate stress. There are rules, of course, about first come, first served in requests, making sure that all work is done before the day can be taken, and so forth. But it’s a perk that many in the company really appreciate.”

If you can’t afford to give employees extra time off, consider allowing them to take care of their personal business at work, provided that the policy isn’t abused. Letting employees shop online during the workday can help alleviate one of the major causes of holiday stress, shopping for presents. Employers might even want to consider going one step further, suggests Allison Schwartz, an executive and life coach with Allium Coaching. “Think about sending a newsletter to employees offering gift ideas and where to purchase them online for their loved ones,” she says.

Easing up on the dress code around the holidays is another way to help employees feel a little more relaxed. “Even simple acts such as a less formal dress code help people loosen up a little,” says Peg Buchenroth, a vice president at Hudson, a staffing and talent management firm. In a similar vein, adding a little cheer in the form of office decorations can also help. PICA, a Columbus, Ohio-based corporate security and risk management firm, gives its employees a budget to decorate their office for the holidays.

Finally, remember that once the holidays are over, that doesn’t mean the blues will magically disappear. “There is so much attention paid to the run-up to the holidays, that when they're finally over, it's like letting the air out a balloon,” says Frank Kenna III, president of workplace communications firm The Marlin Company. “Take the focus off the past and redirect it to the future by getting employees involved in planning for the coming year. Get them excited about how they can make a difference.”

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