The Dark Side of the Season:
How Leaders Can Help Employees Cope With Holiday Stress
By Marissa Levin, Founder & CEO, Successful Culture @marissalevin
Holidays aren’t always happy. Here’s how stress seeps into the workplace and what leaders can do to support struggling employees.
A CEO client shared with me last week that one of his longtime supervisors recently “lost it” at work, which is out of character. He is usually a happy, calm, reliable team member, but on this particular day, he “blew up” about his workload.
My client talked with him but grew impatient. He told this employee how he was coming across (unappreciative, unhappy, and a nonstop complainer) and that if he was so miserable, he could leave.
I asked my client what was happening in the employee’s life that may have spilled over into the workplace. He shared that this employee was having difficulties in his marriage and that things were a “mess.”
I reminded my client that leaders are always under the microscope. Our employees are always watching us see how we react to various situations. They take their behavioral cues from us regarding how they should behave and how they should perceive and process situations and experiences.
The holiday season produces higher levels of depression, anxiety, and sadness than any other time of year. These feelings in the workforce manifest in elevated stress, decreased performance and increased conflict.
Reasons for these feelings include:
- Difficulty in relationships
- Illness in themselves or loved ones
- Financial stress
- Social isolation
- Overwhelmed-ness or exhaustion
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- Distorted perception of other people’s “perfect” lives because of social media
- Excessive use of alcohol (a depressant)
- Poor sleep habits due to parties or overeating
- Interruption of exercise routines
- Overall pressure to be thankful or grateful or happy during times of difficulty
How Can Leaders Help?
One of the most important roles of a leader is to create an emotionally safe work environment. When employees feel safe, they become emotionally connected to their co-workers, and the organization. Regardless of the fact that safe work environments generate significantly higher levels of engagement, productivity, and revenue, it is the right thing to do.
Safe workers, with whom leaders have created strong bonds of trust, produce more oxytocin, and are therefore more emotionally bonded to their workplaces. Employees that don’t feel safe produce more adrenaline and cortisol, and are always looking out for themselves first (fight-or-flight response).
There are several things leaders can do to support anxious and stressed employees during the holiday season:
- Acknowledge publicly that they realize the holiday season can be a source of stress
- Make themselves available to listen
- Avoid putting any additional pressure on employees by making holiday parties mandatory that require employees to line up costly babysitters and purchase expensive clothing, or requiring them to participate in any activities that require financial contributions
- Downplay extreme holiday festivities
- Offer employees the opportunity to take time off to serve others. Studies confirm that helping others decreases stress and depression, and increases feelings of gratitude
- Offer an extra mental health day between Thanksgiving and New Year’s to give people a mental break from the holiday “cheer” or to give them an opportunity to get caught up on errands and shopping
- Downplay your own talk of extravagant holiday plans such as large family gatherings or luxury vacations
- Don’t press others about their holiday plans unless you are aware they are freely sharing them with their co-workers
- Show your appreciation for your team in a way that doesn’t require much of them, such as an in-office luncheon or a meal at a restaurant close by
Emotionally connected leaders lead with empathy and compassion and honor the fact that work is just one aspect of an employee’s overall life. During the holiday season, they make an extra effort to honor the whole person and remind every staff member that he or she is safe and secure at work, even when the rest of the world seems chaotic.
Marissa Levin is the co-founder of Successful Culture International.