How Will You Support Your Staff During What May Be a Very Lonely Holiday Season?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal December 2, 2020
How Will You Support Your Staff During What May Be a Very Lonely Holiday Season?

​In mid-November, shortly before Thanksgiving and as COVID-19 cases surged around the country, governors extended or ramped up their safety requirements. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, for instance, ordered indoor fitness centers and dining to be closed. And he ordered residents not to hold gatherings with people from other households. The message: Celebrate Thanksgiving, but only with those you normally live with. That sentiment is likely to extend around the country throughout the holiday season.

These restrictions will certainly keep employees from enjoying the holiday season with friends and relatives as they typically would.  It's one more disappointment in a year full of stress and change.

Employees Facing Stress Like Never Before

Employees who have been dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 since March are feeling the strain. A report from employee experience software company Limeade, Workplaces in Crisis: Employee Care Missing the Mark, was released in October. Based on input from 1,000 full-time US employees, the report authors found:

  • 49 percent report having less energy for nonwork activities.
  • 42 percent said they were less interested in socializing with friends.
  • 42 percent were having trouble sleeping.
  • 33 percent reported using more alcohol or other substances than usual.

"2020 was not the year we expected," said Meghan Stokes, vice president of clinical services at BHS, an employee assistance program and well-being provider headquartered in Baltimore. "We've used up all of our surge capacity. That's what we rely on to get through crisis. When that's drawn out and there are more stressors, it's never replenished. We are exhausted."

These feelings are likely to be exacerbated over the holiday season. But there are steps that companies can take to support staff as the virus continues to rage and the holiday season is upon us.

Be Proactive in Offering Support

"The inability to celebrate holidays as usual is just one more unusual stressor in a year fraught with uncertainty," said Tyler Arvig, a doctor of psychology and associate medical director at R3 Continuum, a behavioral health and security services company with offices in Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, Mich. "Holiday gatherings typically serve as important anchors for families and may be one of the few times where families are able to be together during the year. It is a time of togetherness. Except for this year, when it won't be. It will be a time of isolation. That, for many, will be very devastating."

It's not a matter of if employees will feel this loss. It's a matter of how significantly it will impact them. Consequently, managers need to proactively reach out to their people, one on one, and check in on their mental health during this stressful time, says Andrew Shatte, Ph.D., chief knowledge officer and co-founder of meQuilibrium, a technology company based in Boston.

Even for employers that provided employee mental health resources before the pandemic, the need is much higher now, says Margie Lee Johnson, vice president of people at background-check company Checkr, headquartered in San Francisco. "Though employers may have provided employee resources before the pandemic, the need for discussion around the topic is much higher, so it's important to ensure employees feel supported to openly discuss the topic when they need or want to," she said.

Leaders can start the conversation, potentially discussing their own experiences and concerns to help eliminate the stigma of such discussions. They might also consider "providing direct access to therapists and conducting new types of resources such as meditation and group discussions on specific issues," Johnson suggested.

"Self-care is really important to replenish your system and re-energize," Stokes said. "Give your mind, body and soul what it needs so you can keep getting up each day and deal with what life brings you." Start with simple things you can control: move more, stay hydrated, build in mini breaks to get away from computer screens. Managers and leaders can be good role models and do this themselves, Stokes recommended.

Take time, too, to recognize what you've accomplished this year, Stokes said. "When we look back to April and May, we were wondering how we'd get through. We've dealt with and adjusted to so much. Take stock of what you've been proud of and how can you continue to invest in that moving forward. What have you gained or been given an opportunity to do?"

How Organizations Are Stepping Up to Support Employees

Jenna Saponaro is chief of staff at Postali, a legal marketing firm in Columbus, Ohio. She pulled a paid- time-off (PTO) report for each team member and reached out personally to those who had taken very little time off, encouraging them to use their PTO days even if in small increments. "It has been a successful effort so, far," she said. "Honestly, some people just need to hear it from their leaders." HR professionals and organizational leaders "need to intentionally check in with their employees, especially in this unconventional holiday season," she said.

At Sendoso, a sending platform with offices in San Francisco, Scottsdale and Pakistan, Head of Human Resources Jennie Knowles, SHRM-CP, says, "Since going remote, we've offered a weekly children's story hour over Zoom, where one of our big-hearted employees reads picture books to the delight of little ones and their parents who get an extra hour of heads-down work."

In addition, employers can "provide forums for employee groups to meet and talk, to connect on a human level," Arvig said. "Many workplaces have lost the proverbial watercooler, yet the need for such a forum is greater than ever."

Organizations that are most successful at navigating uncertain times are supporting employees in creative ways, Shatte said. "During the holidays, organizations need to allow their people greater job flexibility so they can do their jobs but also spend time with their children, many of whom will be having a disappointing, truncated holiday season missing many important traditions." 

Checkr has done this in a big way, offering employees who have been with the firm for three years an additional month-long sabbatical, Johnson said.

It's the rare company that will host a traditional holiday event this year. That doesn't mean, though, that they can't recognize and reward employees during this unusual holiday season.

"Since companies have been able to cut down on company culture costs—happy hours, office snacks—with employees being remote, they should consider spending extra this year on holiday gifts and end-of-year goodies," Knowles said.

Organizations may also want to consider conducting virtual holiday celebrations that their employees and families can join, Shatte suggested.

Empower Managers to Make a Difference

Employees' direct supervisors and managers are the first line of defense for ensuring employee well-being. Make sure supervisors and managers know they have the leeway and discretion to do things to inspire their teams. Not being explicit about this may mean they don't realize that they can take steps to acknowledge, reward and relieve their employees during these stressful times. "A discretionary budget for team leads to use for awarding employees will open up the door for more unique and appropriate employee encouragement," Johnson said.

Finally, said Arvig, "during this holiday season, keep the humanity of your employees in mind." With so much going on, it can be easy to forget about the personal struggles and stressors people are feeling. The more we keep this in mind, the more likely we will be successful in finding ways to support employees during the holidays, and after.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

In the coming year, SHRM will partner with BHS to offer a unique mental health and workplace solution that will support employees, supervisors and organizations in managing and addressing mental health.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.


SHRM's Employee Engagement Survey service focuses on more than 50 aspects of job satisfaction and engagement commonly linked to performance.

SHRM's Employee Engagement Survey service focuses on more than 50 aspects of job satisfaction and engagement commonly linked to performance.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.