Coping with Holiday Pressures During a Pandemic

By Mark Debus, MSW, LCSW, Behavioral Health Team Lead, Sedgwick

As we enter another phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states are again issuing advisories and orders to wear masks in public and avoid gatherings, even in your own home. These types of precautions are dramatically impacting holiday plans and traditions. For many, the added emotional burden is not confined to personal life but can also show up at the workplace. Employers are advised to acknowledge the uncertainties employees may feel as they head into the holidays and look for ways to alleviate these added stressors.

Because employees spend considerable time at work, employers are in a unique position to recognize potential difficulties they may be having and influence coping behaviors. Excessive stress may show up in the form of uncharacteristic actions on a zoom call, erratic messages in an email, or unexpected outbursts during a telephone conversation. Another concerning behavior is an employee showing signs of severe isolation. Such actions may indicate a more severe problem such as substance abuse or an emotional disorder and require professional assistance from mental or behavioral health specialists.

For the majority of employees, more common management practices can aid employees during the holiday season. Notably, managers should lead with empathy and compassion. They need to understand what employees may be feeling during a year fraught with uncertainty. In today’s COVID climate, routine work assignments can create uneasiness as employees worry about possible infection or exposing family members to the highly contagious virus. Financial anxieties can surface from concern over possible staffing reductions or business closings. Communications about the precautionary measures that a business is taking to maintain a safe work place as well as transparency related to business performance can help alleviate such uneasiness.

Additionally, employees may feel increased isolation during the holidays. Employees working remotely no longer have the opportunity to share common experiences in the breakroom or gather for weekly exchanges around a conference table. Even those who have returned to work are adjusting to a new normal dictated by social distancing and face masks. Managers are encouraged to acknowledge and share some of their own challenges. Shared experiences can help reassure employees that they are not alone in coping with these situations.

Pent-up anxiety and feelings of sadness are not limited to employees. Managers may feel a sense of loss due to cancellations of family gatherings, long-standing traditions, holiday entertainment, or anticipated travel. In these situations, there is an opportunity to create a connection. One-on-one conversations between managers and employees can help normalize these experiences. Self-disclosure by managers and employees can be valuable as both may find their experiences are not so different or extreme amid these pressing times.

Managers should also look for signs of possible burnout. Frequently brought on by high levels of change or stress, a key symptom of burnout is employee disengagement. Longer work hours and fewer breaks can contribute to feeling overwhelmed and can cause productivity and performance decline. The onset of COVID-19 has fueled the potential for burnout, and employers should be prepared to address this condition.

The good news is there are many practical solutions and suggestions employers can implement to alleviate these holiday stressors.

  1. Encourage employees to take accrued vacation or paid time off. Employees who are working from home for the first time may not feel they can truly unplug from work during their downtime. Employers need to communicate the benefits of breaks as a way to re-energize.
  2. Practice empathy and connection. This pandemic is affecting all of us in some way. Denying its impact or the stressors associated with it is not helpful to anyone. Authenticity and understanding can help normalize this experience. Virtually, everyone is feeling some type of loss or disappointment arising from this year’s disruptions.
  3. While it may be necessary to cancel the holiday party, be creative and provide some other form of holiday entertainment for employees. Consider holding home scavenger hunts with prizes. Offer passes to attend an online concert. Stage contests for the best workspace decorating. Encourage creating pet costumes. Exchange holiday recipes. Wear and share ugly holiday sweater photos. Create holiday themed face masks.
  4. Emphasize connections with others. If your organization has a company intranet site for employees only, create a page to share photos of new “coworkers” that showcase children and pets. Ask them to share a family tradition and describe how they celebrate holidays. At Sedgwick, we began sharing messages of positivity.

Ready or not, the holidays are coming. These times can be stressful under the best of circumstances. Factor in COVID-19 complexities, and emotions may run off the charts. Employers have the opportunity to make a difference. Establish a connection and create cheer in what has been a seemingly unprecedented year.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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