Seasonal Cheer Hard on Workers

The line that separates work from personal life can be thinnest during the holiday season. Usual workloads, combined with festive season obligations can put enormous stress on people.

Instead of anticipating a happy time with family and friends – which, as the advertising and popular culture tells us, is what we’re all supposed to be doing – many workers dread the festivities.

We often observe heightened anxiety levels for many at this time of year.

Employers and colleagues best able to cope are the ones who fully realize that the tension and the blues accompanying the holidays can be common – and normal – in the workforce.

If you know the typical holiday behaviours to look for, you can help subordinates and colleagues. Here are a few:

o Holiday Binges
This is a time of excess for some. Workers may feel tempted to overdo it at every turn.

The holiday office party can be a minefield, especially when 10 to 15 per cent of Canadian workers struggle with alcohol problems.

People’s financial resources can be stretched as they risk over-shopping, often to boost self-worth. Those trying to maintain a healthy weight find the push to overeat is overwhelming, triggering weight gain or eating disorders.

The temptations to binge can lead to a sense of hopelessness in staff who battle addictive inclinations. There can be a great deal of shame associated with the tendency to eat, drink and shop to excess.

o Family Pressures
Despite what we’re told about this season, not everyone delights in “going home” for the holidays. Family time can be fraught with conflict, ambivalence and hurt feelings. Workers who suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse or have unhappy memories can find attending holiday rituals painful. They may have to see people they don’t want to see, fall into outdated family patterns-like being compared to a “successful” sibling at the dinner table or feel resentment at being stuck doing all the meal preparation.

Watching other family members drink too much, caring for ailing parents or having to deal with an ex-partner can make workers dread the holidays. Supportive colleagues can listen for signs of this kind of tension and lend an empathic ear.

o Loss
Many staff members grieve for lost loved ones at this time, and for many, the first holiday after the death of a treasured friend or relative can be the hardest. Everything about the seasonal rites may make the loss resonate. Colleagues may stumble across a colleague crying in the bathroom or cubicle for no apparent reason. Asking, “What’s the matter, can I help?” could yield an appreciative response and a story about the loss of a colleague, child, parent or sibling.

Families undergoing separation and divorce can find this time of year excruciating, from sorting out who visits whom and when, to dealing with the pain of a family break-up-complete with anxious children asking how Santa will know which parent’s house to visit. Jealousy (a new husband or wife is introduced to the holiday proceedings), resentment and feelings of rejection may surface quickly.

o Runaway Expectations
Workers may feel “forced” to be jolly, merry, peaceful, calm and joyful when they actually feel depressed, angry, and anxious during the holidays. Slapping a fake smile on, pretending to have fun and trying to do it all (financing and pulling together a traditional holiday and handing in that big report) can make people feel crazy.

Workers find a disconnect between what they are supposed to feel, think and do and what they actually experience at this time of year. Supportive colleagues can offer workers who don’t enjoy the season understanding and “permission” to opt out.

o Loneliness
Many workers without colleagues or family find the holidays hard, perceiving that everyone else is with someone or has somewhere to go.

Trying to include others in plans and getting to know quieter colleagues can help. A kind word recognizing a colleague’s difficult circumstances can help. Even if you don’t know the person well, but you know they have suffered a loss, consider writing a card or say: “I know it hasn’t been all that easy for you these days, but I just wanted you to know that my thoughts are with you this holiday season”.

While there are some who may just dislike the season, many workers have painful reasons. Knowing that a worker has a painful reason for disliking the season may equip staff to understand each other, make allowances for one another and even offer a great gift-the gift of their compassion.

Best wishes to all for the holidays.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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