Hope for the holidays: Supporting employees through a challenging season

Hope for the holidays: Supporting employees through a challenging season

By Matt Verdecchia | BenefitsPRO

It is important to remember and acknowledge that this season will be different than most.     

For many people, the holidays can be challenging even in normal circumstances. Considering the current situation with COVID-19 and other ongoing issues across the country, we find ourselves in uncharted territory this year. Many of these circumstances are out of our control, but that does not make them easier to manage or relieve the anxiety employees may feel over what the holidays will look like this season. Not only can the resulting stress impact employees’ emotional and mental well-being, but it also has the potential to spill over into the workplace.

It is important to remember and acknowledge that this season will be different than most. Even for organizations with onsite employees, holiday parties and gatherings likely are off the table in 2020, further chipping away at activities that build camaraderie this time of year. This can especially impact those without close friends or family nearby. Addressing these issues head-on can help overcome the stigma that sometimes surrounds the “holiday blues” and encourage individuals to reach out for assistance when needed.

Even with these extra challenges to consider, there are effective ways to support employees’, clients’ and your own mental health and well-being as everyone works together to navigate this year’s unique holiday season.

The impact of added challenges

Typical stressors around the holidays can be wide-ranging. For some, the extra pressure of facing looming year-end deadlines during a shortened work month combined with additional personal, financial, and family obligations can increase stress during this time of year. Many employees put tremendous pressure and high expectations on themselves to make this a perfect time of year, leading to additional stress and anxiety as we try to keep the same traditions going although circumstances are different.

However, for others, the holidays can bring other, more long-term issues to the surface. Whether they recently lost a loved one, are experiencing financial issues, or facing any number of other challenges, the holidays can compound these problems and create further stress, anxiety and depression among these employees.

Within our current environment, there are additional stressors to consider. Due to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases and concerns over the risks of traveling and gathering, many people may be celebrating the holidays away from family this year. Coupled with differing opinions over the election and other national issues, as well as comfort levels regarding getting together, there may be tension between family members. And as the days get shorter, darker and colder across much of the country, there will be fewer opportunities for the outdoor socialization many of us leaned on throughout the warmer months.

These factors multiply to create additional stress, anxiety and uncertainty that can negatively impact our mental health and well-being. No matter the issue, the holidays have the potential to not only affect employees’ personal lives, but their work performance and productivity as well. It’s important for managers and supervisors as well as HR and benefits professionals to understand both how to identify and address issues stemming from employees’ holiday stress in the workplace, especially this year.

Identifying potential issues

There are some key signs that can indicate employees may be experiencing higher-than-normal stress or anxiety, especially during this busy time of year, including:

  • Change in “normal” (predictable) behavior, such as becoming uncharacteristically irritable or withdrawn
  • Change in appearance or hygiene
  • Lack of focus or concentration
  • Unusual tension with other colleagues
  • Change in quality of work performance/reduction in productivity
  • Absenteeism/presenteeism

These signs can all indicate a potential issue, but the earlier managers or HR professionals identify a problem and guide an employee toward helpful resources, the sooner that employee can get the help they need.

How employers can help

Compassion, flexibility and creativity are key to supporting employees through this potentially difficult time. For HR and benefits professionals, managers and supervisors, it is important to be understanding of what employees are experiencing in their personal lives right now. Have realistic expectations and encourage your teams to do the same for their colleagues and direct reports. Establish policies, whether formal and informal, that let employees know you have their back, including:

  • Remind and encourage employees to take their earned time off, even if they are not traveling this year. Everyone needs a break to avoid burnout
  • Provide access to fitness and mental health apps, programs and other resources
  • Remember that some employees may have their kids home over the holidays with no childcare support – try to offer flexible hours over the holidays to work with their schedules
  • Avoid scheduling too many calls/meetings that eat up employees’ productive time
  • Ask that managers, supervisors and employees curtail after-hours emails whenever possible

Taking these steps demonstrates to employees that you understand their current concerns, but this is also an opportunity to get creative and bring teams together, even if not physically. Physical distancing does not have to mean social distancing. With limitations on in-person gatherings, consider a fun, non-work-related virtual get-together (keeping in mind the tips above). Play games, work as a team to raise money for charitable giving, or do a yoga class together via Zoom.

There are a wide range of possibilities that can be tailored to fit the personalities of the team involved. Taking a breather from work can help nurture team relationships and culture while giving employees an opportunity to unwind a bit during an otherwise stressful time. It might even create some new traditions!

Providing additional resources can also help support employees facing challenges or experiencing additional stress or anxiety. Consider offering trainings focused on resiliency, stress management, or managing expectations to give employees strategies to not only cope but thrive. Connect employees with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other similar support systems offered by the employer or available in the local community. If your organization partners with an EAP, they can be a great resource to provide expert suggestions, trainings, support and more, now and throughout the year. Collaborating with internal and external resources can provide information, resources and support to help us ride the wave instead of getting knocked over by it.

Don’t forget to help yourself

Those working in HR, benefits, or management positions can also benefit from self-care and support, especially right now. Make sure to schedule time for yourself amidst helping others, especially right now, and encourage your clients and colleagues to do the same. Identify potential challenges and set boundaries to maintain your own mental health and well-being. Maybe that means asking a team member to take on part of a project, or turning your phone off during family time, but ensure you are supporting your own needs. This will help you be more effective when helping others navigate their own concerns.

This holiday season will be vastly different than most, making it more important than ever that we find ways to help employees adapt, cope and manage expectations in the weeks and months ahead. While we may encounter unique challenges, it is also an opportunity to find new ways to celebrate the season and find joy and camaraderie in unexpected places.

Matt Verdecchia is senior trainer/organizational development with the EAP+Work/Life division of Health Advocate, a leading health concierge and benefits solutions company