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'Tis the Season for Employers to Address Skyrocketing Stress

Experts recommend practicing open communication and touting mental health benefits

A woman sitting on the floor in front of a christmas tree.

​Levels of burnout and anxiety are already high this year as an ongoing pandemic, social unrest and other stressors continue to take their toll on employees' emotional well-being.

Now comes the latest wrinkle: the often-stressful holiday season and end-of-year hoopla.

Consider this year's unique set of challenges—think holiday spending during record-high inflation, when paychecks are already stretched thin, and workers worried about catching COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or flu during gatherings and events—and it's shaping up to be quite a tumultuous time for employees' mental health.

"There's a lot that happens at the same time during 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, senior vice president of research and total well-being at LifeWorks, a digital mental health firm headquartered in Toronto that conducts a monthly mental health index to gauge how employees at workplaces throughout the U.S. and Canada are feeling. "And this year has its own larger degree of strain."

In particular, this holiday season is a unique one in terms of health risks and concerns. The pandemic prohibited many celebrations over the past two years, but with restrictions more or less lifted, a larger number of people plan to gather with families, co-workers and others this year. That doesn't mean, though, 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.-based Health Advocate.

"People want to maintain a sense of normalcy following the past few years, but due to concerns about illnesses like COVID-19, flu and more, some people may be hesitant to travel and gather," Grant said. "Coupled with economic challenges and other ongoing issues, as well as comfort levels regarding getting together, there may be tension between family members."

Statistics show that worsened well-being during the holiday season is a common issue. According to BetterHelp, an online mental health services provider, 72 percent of Americans say they expect something to negatively impact their mental well-being this winter, and 45 percent are worried about their mental health during the holiday season. Meanwhile, Allen said, EAP calls typically skyrocket right after the holidays as scores of people are triggered during the holiday weeks.

"There are a lot of positive things that happen over the holidays, like getting together with people, which is so important to our well-being," Allen said. "But because it's intensified and calendar-driven, it feels like pressure, it feels like a lot: 'I have to do this.' 'I have to see this person.' It might not be what I might want to do, but it's part of the norm."

Add to that financial stresses, personal life situations—like navigating complicated family dynamics or experiencing feelings of grief that may arise more during the holiday months—and work deadlines (for some industries, the end of the year is their busiest season), and it's a perfect storm of stressors.

In short, despite the cheer of the season, it's not the merriest time of year for everyone. That makes it all the more important for company and HR leaders to address employees' mental health challenges during this time of year. Touting available mental health benefits, encouraging employees to use their time off and embracing flexibility are all smart strategies.

Employer Help

Now would be a good time for communication about mental health offerings and other benefits, experts said.

"Employees often forget about the benefits provided to them and how they can be helpful," Grant said. "With everything else going on during this busy season, employees may not have this top of mind. Reminding employees about their employee assistance program, well-being and other benefits, and how they can help themselves and their family members, especially during this time of year, can be tremendously helpful."

In general, open lines of communication are beneficial, including providing holiday stress relief tips, asking workers how they're doing and reminding them about the importance of self-care. Equally important is training and encouraging managers and supervisors to "proactively touch base with their employees to see how they are doing and offer support," Grant said. "This pulse check can help identify any potential issues early and provide necessary help."

"When individual employees show signs of a more serious problem, it's important to step in quickly, as appropriate, to help," she added. "While many employees may show some 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 the EAP, to help address or resolve a wide variety of concerns.

Helping employees prioritize deadlines and offering extra support to complete work can help alleviate the mental health issues that are common during the end of the year. Offering companywide breaks can also be helpful, industry experts say.

Providing flexibility is vital as well, not just in terms of allowing employees to choose their working hours—like cutting out early to attend their child's holiday play, for instance, and encouraging them to take time off, but also in giving employees a say in how they celebrate and if they celebrate. For instance, big holiday parties where alcohol is served may be triggering to some. Having company gift exchanges at a time when employees might be struggling to pay for gifts for their families or other expenses may not be the best idea. And holiday gatherings during a time when viruses are common and on the rise can be stressful and should be optional, Allen said.

"You should absolutely give employees a choice [in certain work holiday events]," Allen said. "You're allowing people to make choices without feeling badly about making choices. You're giving people a sense of control; you're respecting people's personal preferences and situations."

Without help from employers, heightened employee stress during this time of year will likely make 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 is prioritized, where they have information that they can use, proactively, these are things that … can really, literally change the course of people's lives," Allen said. "And you'll provide a narrative that really speaks volumes about who you are as an employer, which will mean a lot to your employees."


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