While the holiday season typically means office parties, a spirit of giving, and joyful family gatherings for some, it can mean added stress, anxiety, and depression for others. The global pandemic adds a new layer of stress and isolation to a season some already struggle through, said Karie Batzler, director of behavioral health for Capital BlueCross.
“The truth is, some people struggle during winter months and might dread the holiday season, maybe in part because there’s an expectation that it should be a joyous time of year and that doesn’t match how they are feeling emotionally,” Batzler said. “And when people have an expectation that you should be happy when you’re not, that feeling of being isolated and alone only gets worse. Many of us feel divided about celebrating because there is so much negative news. It can be hard to feel happy or optimistic.”
The implications for business are profound, she said.
Untreated depression contributes to greater rates of work absenteeism and what some human resource professionals call presenteeism – employees who show up to work but are not fully engaged – according to the American Psychiatric Association. Stress and anxiety often make it difficult for employees to focus, make decisions, or manage time.
A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association found:
- Rising stress levels during the holiday season in 38% of those surveyed.
- A majority of those surveyed reported feelings of happiness, love, and good cheer during the holidays, but said those emotions were often accompanied by feelings of fatigue, stress, irritability, bloating and sadness.
- Over half, 56%, of respondents reported they experience the greatest amount of stress at work.
- Holiday stress is typically harder on women because women most often take charge of holiday celebrations and play a larger role in meal preparation.
- Holiday hype and commercialism add to the stress of the season.
- Lower and middle-income families experience more stress due mostly to financial concerns.
Businesses can play a vital role in helping employees cope during the holiday time.
Many companies, including Capital BlueCross, offer employees access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). These confidential services help employees deal with marital and family problems, emotional distress, alcoholism, drug abuse, co-dependency issues, legal and financial problems, grieving, and other mental health challenges, Batzler said.
The U.S. Department of Labor says EAPs contribute to decreased absenteeism, greater employee retention, and reduced medical costs due to early identification of mental health issues.
“Maintaining our mental wellness can be a challenge. The reality is that we all have problems from time to time, and in-house EAPs are a meaningful way for companies to show they care in times of need,” Batzler said.
Companies also can help employees cope with social isolation by encouraging volunteerism as a way to connect with others, Batzler said. Capital BlueCross, for example, has a robust employee program that encourages and rewards volunteer activities. It offers thousands of dollars in grants each year for nonprofits where its employees volunteer.
This year’s plans to recognize dedicated employee volunteers during a large, in-house ceremony were canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. Those employees instead received commendations in the mail and recognition on the company’s intranet site. “At holiday time, this is a wonderful way for employees to keep their morale up,” Batzler said.
She noted other effective strategies could include:
- Flexible scheduling that allows employees to attend family events, school holiday programs, and seasonal concerts.
- Encouraging employees to take time off to recharge.
- Promoting exercise and good sleep habits. “Getting your heart pumping on a good, brisk walk, and getting a good night’s sleep can make a world of difference,” Batzler explained.
- Reaching out to employees who have suffered a loss.
“Holidays can be especially difficult for someone who has lost a close friend or loved one, and sadly, many have experienced loss in 2020 due to COVID-19,” Batzler said. “Acknowledging someone’s loss and being there to listen and offer support can make a meaningful difference to someone who is grieving.”