Levels of burnout and anxiety are already high this year as an ongoing pandemic, social unrest and other stressors continue to affect employees’ emotional well-being.
Now comes the final wrinkle: the often stressful holiday season and year-end hype.
Consider this year’s unique set of challenges – think holiday spending during record inflation, when paychecks are already stretched and workers fear catching COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or the flu at gatherings and events – and it’s shaping up to be quite a tumultuous time for employee mental health.
“There’s a lot going on at once this time of year. We don’t take care of ourselves. We feel vulnerable, we feel stretched and sometimes we feel triggered,” said Paula Allen, vice- Senior President of Research and Total Wellbeing at LifeWorks, a digital mental health company headquartered in Toronto, which conducts a monthly Mental Health Index to gauge how employees are feeling in workplaces across the States United States and Canada. “And this year has its own higher degree of tension.”
In particular, this holiday season is unique in terms of health risks and concerns. The pandemic has banned many celebrations over the past two years, but with restrictions more or less lifted, more people plan to gather with families, colleagues and others this year. That doesn’t mean, however, that health risks and concerns have gone away, said Judith Grant, vice president of employee assistance programs (EAPs) and work/life services at Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Health Advocate.
“People want to maintain a sense of normalcy after the past few years, but due to concerns about illnesses like COVID-19, the flu and more, some people may be hesitant to travel and congregate,” Grant said. “In addition to economic challenges and other ongoing issues, as well as comfort levels regarding reunions, there can be tension between family members.”
Statistics show that deteriorating well-being during the holiday season is a common problem. According to BetterHelp, an online mental health service provider, 72% of Americans say they expect something to negatively impact their mental well-being this winter, and 45% worry about their mental health during the holiday season. Meanwhile, Allen said, EAP calls typically spike right after the holidays, as dozens of people are triggered during holiday weeks.
“There are a lot of positive things that happen during the holidays, like getting together with people, which is so important to our well-being,” Allen said. “But because it’s stepped up and tied to the schedule, it feels like pressure, it’s been a lot: ‘I have to do this.’ ‘I have to see this person.’ It may not be what I would like to do, but it is part of the norm.”
Add to that financial strains, personal life situations — like navigating complicated family dynamics or experiencing feelings of grief that may arise more during vacation months — and work deadlines (for some industries, the end of the year is the busiest season), and it’s a perfect storm of stressors.
In short, despite the joy of the season, it is not the happiest time of the year for everyone. This makes it all the more important for business leaders and HR managers to address employee mental health issues during this time of year. Touting available mental health benefits, encouraging employees to use their free time, and embracing flexibility are all smart strategies.
Help for the employer
Now would be a good time to communicate mental health offers and other benefits, experts said.
“Employees often overlook the benefits available to them and how they can be helpful,” Grant said. “With everything going on during this busy season, employees may not have that priority in mind. Remind employees of their employee assistance program, wellness and other benefits, and how they can help themselves and their family members, especially during this time of year, can be extremely helpful.”
In general, open lines of communication are beneficial, including providing holiday stress relief tips, asking workers how they are doing, and reminding them of the importance of taking care of themselves. It’s equally important to train and encourage managers and supervisors to “proactively reach out to their employees to see how they’re doing and offer support,” Grant said. “This pulse check can help identify any potential problems quickly and provide the help needed.”
“When individual employees show signs of a more serious problem, it is important to intervene quickly, if necessary, to help,” she added. “While many employees may show signs of temporary stress, prolonged issues should be addressed as soon as possible for the health and safety of the employee.” Grant said managers should guide employees to available resources, including HR and EAP, to help address or resolve a wide variety of issues.
Helping employees prioritize deadlines and offering extra support to complete work can help alleviate mental health issues that are common at the end of the year. Offering company-wide breaks can also help, according to industry experts.
Providing flexibility is also essential, not only to allow employees to choose their working hours, such as going away early to attend their child’s holiday games, for example, and to encourage them to take time off, but also to give employees a say in how and if they celebrate. For example, the big end-of-year celebrations where alcohol is served can be triggering for some. Having corporate gift exchanges at a time when employees might be struggling to afford gifts for family or other expenses may not be the best idea. And holiday gatherings at a time when viruses are common and on the rise can be stressful and should be optional, Allen said.
“You absolutely have to leave the choice to the employees [in certain work holiday events]”, Allen said. “You allow people to make choices without feeling bad about making choices. You give people a sense of control; you respect people’s personal preferences and situations.”
Without help from employers, increased employee stress during this time of year will likely find its way into the office, creating not only unproductive and unhealthy employees, but also employees who may not feel valued by their employer and are more likely to leave.
“If you create an environment where people feel comfortable and supported, where mental health comes first, where they have information they can use, proactively, those are things that… can really, literally changing the course of people’s lives,” Allen said. “And you’ll provide a story that says a lot about who you are as an employer, which will mean a lot to your employees.”