The holidays aren’t all parties and presents or candy canes and champagne. For workers, this time of year—brimming with looming end-of-year deadlines, financial and social obligations, and more—can cause a serious decline in mental well-being.
Research from jobs site Monster finds the majority of U.S. workers (61 percent) say their mental health is negatively impacted during the holiday season, with 44 percent feeling more stressed than usual and 17 percent reporting a decline in their overall well-being. That’s on top of the high levels of stress and burnout workers are already experiencing. According to recent Aflac research, well over half of U.S. employees (57 percent) are experiencing at least a moderate level of burnout.
“One of the reasons why burnout and workplace stress intensifies during the holiday season is because of the pressure to meet year-end deadlines during a shortened work month,” said Jeri Hawthorne, CHRO of Aflac. “Additional family, financial and personal obligations also exacerbate burnout symptoms and workplace stress at the end of the year.”
That heightened stress will likely make its way into the office—creating not only unproductive and unhealthy employees, but also ones who may not feel valued by their employer and are therefore more likely to leave.
That’s why, experts said, it’s in employers’ and HR leaders’ best interest to address the issue by touting available benefits, helping manage workloads and rethinking holiday celebrations, among other steps.
“Employers and HR leaders need to help address this time of high stress and anxiety because first and foremost, employees are people first and workers second,” said Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster. “High stress and anxiety can lead to burnout, illness and more. As for the employer piece, intense stress and anxiety can result in poor productivity, errors, lower morale and engagement, and more.”
Here are 10 ways to help, according to HR and benefits experts.
Remind employees about financial education offerings to assist them with holiday budget concerns. Many employees are already stressed about finances—long-lasting high inflation has pushed financial wellness to an all-time low, according to a recent Bank of America report—so the holidays, which are associated with gifts, extra commitments and travel that drive up spending, can cause greater stress for employees.
A September survey by Paycom found that three in four Americans say they must make accommodations to afford increased holiday expenses, including having side hustles or seasonal jobs, taking on credit card debt or payday loans, and saving throughout the year.
Many organizations offer financial wellness programs for employees, so HR leaders may want to send out information about available resources that employees can access to help with budgeting, saving and more.
Jennifer Kraszewski, SHRM-SCP, senior executive vice president of human resources at Paycom, said organizations should also look at their pay processes and make sure employees are paid on time and correctly for any end-of-year bonuses, regular salary and overtime hours.
Check in about workload—especially regarding end-of-year deadlines. The end of the calendar year is especially busy for many employees, and in some sectors, it might even be the busiest time of the year. “As the end of the year approaches, employees are trying to finalize budgets, wrap up projects, meet goals and tie up loose ends,” said Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021). That’s why it’s vital that managers talk with employees about their workload and try to come up with solutions together about how to manage it, she said.
Salemi added that from now until the end of the year, managers should frequently check in with employees “so they feel seen and heard.”
“They can say something like, ‘I want to check in to see how you’re doing. It’s such a hectic time of year and stress can become more intense than usual. How are you? How can I best support you?’ ” she said. “Employers should be open to hearing their workers’ concerns—maybe they need more flexible schedules right now; maybe they need additional help—perhaps tapping resources from other departments who have lighter workloads this time of year.”
Think about mental health help. HR and benefits leaders would be well-served to ramp up communication about mental health tips, as well as resources available through the company. For instance, Hawthorne said, HR leaders might want to send messages to employees to encourage them to take advantage of wellness programs such as employee assistance programs.
Kraszewski said Paycom provides on-site well-being advisers who brainstorm helpful wellness approaches with individuals and the organization. “In addition to our employee assistance program, these trained professionals help employees with matters in and out of the office,” she said. “Considering a time of year that includes holiday stress for many individuals, coupled with recent global events, these advisors are instrumental in supporting employees as they navigate all aspects of their lives and ensuring organizational practices that allow time and choice for individuals to address these holistic needs.”
Encourage employees to take paid time off (PTO)—and actually step away from work. Utilizing PTO is vital in helping employees take a breather, recharge and come back to the office ready to work and be productive. But Monster data found the majority of workers (65 percent) admit to working on their days off to solve time-sensitive deliverables or to support their manager or other co-workers who ask questions or require their response.
“[Employers] should reassure workers they don’t have to work on their days off,” Salemi said. “Bosses should lead by example and not check emails while they’re out of the office to set the message of truly unplugging. In turn, this means when they know their workers are on personal time or holiday time out of the office, bosses should not reach out to their direct reports and expect them to respond.”
Doing this, she said, can put a worker’s mind at ease. They can feel that their boss truly supports their taking time off without any negative ramifications. It can also help alleviate the stress and anxiety workers feel to constantly work 24/7 during a time of year that’s intended for people to slow down and pause.
In the long term, Salemi added, advocating for employees to enjoy time off can help strengthen retention and boost productivity when they return to work after a break feeling recharged.
Talk about health concerns and good practices. COVID-19, flu, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and other illnesses are spreading rapidly right now, which can be a stressor for employees—especially those who work in an office near other people or have a holiday party to attend, Hawthorne said. HR leaders might want to tell their workforce about potential ways to combat virus spread and encourage them to use PTO or to work remotely when they’re sick to “help avoid spreading illness, which can increase stress,” she said.
Likewise, it might be a best practice to not make an office holiday party mandatory to ease concerns of workers who might be concerned about catching COVID-19 or other illnesses.
Consider offering a companywide break. PTO is helpful, but a companywide break—when a company shuts down most of its operations and allows employees to take the same time off, such as at KPMG and PwC—can be a big help in reducing employee stress.
It also appears to be a growing trend, especially around the holidays: According to Sequoia Consulting Group, an HR consulting and services company based in San Francisco, 35 percent of companies give employees the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day off.
While this may take significant planning, employers can get ready to do it next year.
Give employees a choice when it comes to holiday gatherings. Holiday parties can be fun and a great morale booster—but they can cause stress for workers already stretched thin with lots of commitments or for any employee who would prefer to skip out on big events due to illness concerns.
“My advice always to the leaders I work with is use empathy. Check in with your people to find out if they are still on board with the big holiday party or if they want to do something else this year. Go with the majority, but if there are people who might feel left out, offer a different option,” Moss said. She added that organizations should ensure that events are accessible by having spaces that consider employees with disabilities. Neurodiverse employees, for instance, may need spaces that respect sensory sensitivities.
“It can appear tone-deaf if employees are feeling constantly under-resourced and exhausted from burnout, and the cost of the holiday party could have paid for those resources,” Moss said. “Just because it comes out of another budget, it doesn’t mean employees won’t notice.”
Offer opportunities to volunteer or give back. Giving back and helping others during this time of year may boost employees’ feelings of happiness. Hawthorne recommended that employers offer employees an opportunity to volunteer or participate in charitable giving. Employers can also consider offering workers a day of PTO to volunteer for a cause they are passionate about.
“Offering employees an opportunity to give back to their communities can bolster a sense of community and well-being,” she said.
Remember that employee situations are unique. The holidays can be a joyful time of year for many people, but they can be especially rough for many others.
“The holidays can be hard for people—particularly if they are attached to grief,” Moss said. “It may feel like the pandemic is in the rearview, but the catastrophic impacts are still felt by many, especially at this time of the year. Also, the holiday season can feel exclusive for anyone who doesn’t celebrate it. Plus, loneliness is at an all-time high during the holiday season, which can make people feel even more excluded. Employers need to be sensitive to the unique experiences everyone is going through.”
Employers and HR leaders could benefit from training managers to recognize the signs of high stress and anxiety among their workforces, Hawthorne said. “These signs include but are not limited to absenteeism, irritability, lack of concentration and lower work quality, as well as withdrawn behaviors,” she said.
Celebrate employees during the holidays. Some employers give gifts to employees—from larger things such as an end-of-year bonus and extra PTO to smaller things such as a gift card or other present. But gifts are not the only way to celebrate employees. Recognizing their contributions, even with a letter or in-person praise, can boost employee confidence.
“Celebrating employees during the holidays—in large and small ways—is important,” Hawthorne said. “It doesn’t have to be an extravagant holiday party; simply thanking employees for their efforts over the past 12 months can help to build morale.”