Holiday Stress and Work-Life Balance: A Survival Guide


Holidays are special times of year when we gather with loved ones to remember the past, show gratitude for the present, and to hope for the future. They can also be tremendously stressful for all the same reasons: the past can be painful, the present full of demands, and the future disturbingly uncertain. Layer on top family dynamics and cultural demands such as gifting or the gendered performance of traditions, and it’s no wonder that many people approach holidays with a mix of joy and dread. Through it all, managers must keep managing and deadlines must continue to be met. Workplace strategies for surviving – and thriving despite – holiday stress begin long before the first gift is wrapped or the first candle is lit. Here’s how.

Holiday stress is a bit like Shrodinger’s cat – it might not be a serious issue with your staff, but it might be – and it’s difficult to tell without some obvious proof. Addressing holiday stress isn’t easy, because many people feel uncomfortable talking about it. Many offices view the mental health day and other work-life balance strategies like teleworking as a sign of laziness or weakness. That’s unfortunate. Without resources, staff find less productive ways to deal with bottled-up stress. Lackluster performance, hyper competitiveness, poor customer service, passive aggressiveness and burn out are just a few ways over-stressed staff can really cost an organization. The bad news is that any number of issues – not just stress — can contribute to these behaviors. The good news, is that enabling your staff to manage their stressors through flexibility and proactive compassion in the workplace can help. Don’t wait for the meltdown or crisis. Put in place a menu of work-life balance strategies, educate staff on when and how to use each, and develop a plan for using them.

Of course, for work-life balance to really work, management needs to effectively model and actively support it. Policy is not enough. If your office policy says working remotely is encouraged, but you routinely deride the practice at the water cooler, your staff will perceive it as the career kiss of death. Conversely, if you remain an effective leader while working remotely yourself, you set a high bar for both remote work and overall performance.

Being an example to your staff doesn’t mean that you have to be superhuman. Yes, your staff may be experiencing holiday stress, but you may be also. Holiday stress can have a compound effect on managers too. If you are seeing the signs in your staff, you may feel even more pressure to hold it all together for the team. That’s a noble gesture, but how much is that strategy really helping and how sustainable is it? Effectively modeling work-life balance does not mean pretending you can do everything, all the time, for everyone. It means being an example of how and when to slow down, call in reinforcements, and ask for help. These are things that we all have to do. Your staff will respect you for taking on and excelling at what you can do rather than overextending and falling apart. In this often stressful season, assess how you model work-life balance and resolve to get better at it in 2016.

We’ve addressed management and staff getting real about holiday stress this time of year, and how to manage it in the workplace, but holiday stress is a lot more fluid than you might realize. If you’re like me, you probably have a multicultural workplace and realize how awesome it is. But this means you or your staff may be experiencing holiday stress at a time when no one else is observing the same holiday. Perhaps your star performer has given up smoking for Lent and she or he is on edge for over a month in the early spring. Perhaps you fast during the daytime and prepare a large meal for family and guests when you get home every evening, for a month, during Ramadan. Holidays and traditions can be deeply fulfilling and thoroughly taxing at the same time. It is difficult to know when and how someone is observing less publicized holidays, because there may not be any office parties or coffee break chatter to bring it up. Therefore, holiday stress is a possibility all year round. The best defense against this stealthy productivity killer is a strong, flexible work-life balance strategy for yourself and your staff.

One size will not fit all. You will need to model work-life balance all year, particularly during your times of stress (holiday or otherwise), and encourage your staff to be proactive in doing the same. You don’t need to learn every intimate detail of the lives of your staff, or bare all your own. Simply acknowledging that you and your staff have periods of increased stress throughout the year and having a conversation about how to balance them with work requirements is a good place to start. This season of cheer and challenges might be the perfect time to start the conversation.

Crystal Winston is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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