A Therapist’s Guide for Surviving Holiday Stress

Are you bracing yourself for the holiday season? If so, you’re not alone. 

Almost everyone deals with holiday stress. In fact, over half of Americans feel difficult emotions like sadness and loneliness during this season, and the American Psychological Association found that 38% say their stress increases. 

Whether you manage a team or work in HR or talent management, the end of the year can feel intense. 

In addition to your usual workload and stress level, you may have end-of-year deadlines and goals to hit, and elevated pressure to deliver at work. There are added expectations and responsibilities, as you deal with keeping company holiday parties inclusive and issue free, dips in employee productivity, absenteeism, and higher rates of anxiety and depression.  

It all stacks up to having a lot more to do with a lot less time, which can lead to overwhelm and eventually, burnout. 

Take care of your own mental health, first

Supporting your employees is a year-round challenge, and as the holidays approach, you’re experiencing the same stressors they are. 

This season may bring up somber feelings and difficult memories. You may have lost a loved one during the holidays, and traditions can be painful reminders of those who are no longer here to celebrate with us. 

The holidays can be difficult for almost everyone in different ways, and I encourage you to shift your focus to taking care of yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and this ensures you have the energy to effectively support your teams and those who rely on you in the workplace. 

I often think about how it felt to be a therapist in New York in 2020, when COVID first hit the city. I was tasked with supporting patients through a period of deep uncertainty and fear of illness and death—both for themselves and their loved ones—all while living across the street from a hospital with an overflowing COVID unit. 

I recognized that to provide the level of support my patients needed, I had to upgrade my own self care. 

I was mindful of how I scheduled my days, made it a priority to do a yoga video every day (and gave myself grace on the days I missed!), and set up intentional points for connection with my loved ones, who help keep my metaphorical cup full. I even watched light-hearted comedies instead of my normal horror flick tendency. 

Self-care strategies for holiday stress

As a leader, it’s important to recognize the boundaries between your needs and the needs of others. Staying emotionally healthy looks different for everyone, but these three strategies can help you take care of yourself first during the holidays. 

Prioritize, schedule, delegate, delete

You don’t have to do it all—I promise. We all experience FOMO from time to time, and feel like we have to handle everything on our plate. But a packed schedule of activities during this season can take the joy out of it.

Say no to events you really don’t want to attend, whether they are in-person gatherings or a video-conference happy hour with friends or colleagues, and delegate what you can. This will give you more time and more headspace. 

I use the Eisenhower Matrix to help clients manage burnout, stress, and anxiety. These four quadrants can help you determine what’s important and actually urgent and what’s not, and ultimately, help you slow down. 

If a task falls in the important and urgent quadrants, do it. If it’s important and not urgent, schedule it. If it’s not important but it is urgent, delegate it, and if it’s not important or urgent, delete it. 

Set and keep firm boundaries

Creating healthy boundaries is one of the most effective ways to reduce holiday stress and communicate what you need to the people in your life, at work and at home.

Healthy boundaries lead to healthier relationships, more energy, and improved mental and emotional wellbeing. This can look like saying no, saying yes, explaining why, and overall, doing what’s required to protect your energy, your values, and your mental health. 

After you identify the boundaries you need to set to stay emotionally healthy, start communicating them to teach others how to treat you. 

Examine all the dimensions of self care

There are eight different areas of self care: physical, psychological, emotional, social, financial, spiritual, environmental, and professional. 

Pay attention to what you need to feel healthy in each area, and honor those needs with the choices you make and the priorities you set. 

For example, in the area of social self care, if you go to a holiday party and you’re not having a good time, give yourself permission to leave. If you know you won’t be able to attend that party without completely draining your energy, give yourself permission to gracefully decline. 

In the professional area, self care might look like honoring your work-life boundaries, allowing yourself to take an uninterrupted lunch break away from your desk, or going for a walk when you need a mental break. 

While the busyness of the season can make us want to “go go go,” taking intentional breaks can lead us to be far more productive and effective with our focus.

Ways to support employees and reduce their holiday stress

Now that you’ve filled up your own metaphorical cup, here are some strategies for helping employees and the people you manage and support navigate this season and reduce their holiday stress at work. 

Lighten workloads wherever possible

Use the Eisenhower Matrix we already discussed to lighten your employees’ workloads. This can help you look critically at their deadlines and projects and discern what’s actually important and urgent, see if anything can be postponed to the new year, and identify the right person to delegate a particular task. 

Give employees permission to say no

There’s a lot of pressure throughout the holiday season to say yes to extra social events, and this includes team activities and company holiday parties. 

I encourage you to make these truly optional, and go a step further by letting employees know it’s okay not to attend if it would negatively impact their mental health. 

Also, schedule holidays events during the workday. Planning these outside of regular working hours can place additional stress and pressure on an already overloaded schedule. 

Let employees feel how they’re feeling

There’s a lot of pressure during the holiday season to “get into the spirit” and feel joyful, and if an employee has recently lost a loved one or gone through a breakup, they may be feeling a lot more sadness and loneliness than joy. 

A lot of the suffering and spiraling mental health that happens during this time of year is because of the disconnect between how we think we’re supposed to feel, and how we’re actually feeling. 

Encourage the spectrum of emotions throughout the year, but especially during the holidays, when employees may be feeling more anxiety, sadness, and loneliness than usual. 

Also, check in with an employee if you know they’ve experienced loss or may be grieving. Simply asking, “How are you doing?” or saying “I know this time of year can be hard” opens the door for a conversation and validates their feelings.  

Look for mental health warning signs

That said, because more difficult emotions come up this time of year, it’s equally important to keep an eye out for signs that an employee is not okay. 

These include:

  • Decline in work performance and productivity 
  • Showing up late to meetings
  • Seeming more tired than usual
  • Changes in attitude, demeanor, behavior, or body language
  • For remote workers, keeping their camera off during a meeting when it’s usually on

Proactively engaging someone who may need extra support isn’t easy, but it’s so important. It’s normal to not want to overstep, but most of the time, they’re not going to come to you. 

Know your people and trust your gut. When you decide to begin the conversation, it often helps to be vulnerable. See if there’s something personal you can share that might relate to what they’re going through, to normalize talking about mental health, and create a safe space. 

It’s so important for HR leaders to have good judgment, read the room, listen to their gut, and operate from a place of kindness, warmth, and openness.  

Give people the flexibility they need

Schedules get trickier during the holidays, and getting everything done can be a big stressor—especially for parents and caretakers. If possible, allow employees more flexibility in their schedule, and to take more time off than usual. 

Communicate to the entire company that it’s okay to block an hour on their schedule to attend their child’s play or holiday party at school, take a mental health day or even half day, or go to therapy—especially since therapists’ schedules tend to be fuller around the holidays. 

Lead by example

If you need to take a mental health day, or go to a therapy appointment during the workday, be open about this with your team. For example, you can see from my Slack status that I’m in therapy from 8-9 am every Monday morning.

Many employees won’t feel comfortable taking this time unless they see you doing it. Knowing that you seek out support when you need it, whether that’s therapy, coaching, or mindfulness exercises, normalizes conversations about mental health. 

Going back to boundary setting, as you model this behavior as well, you’ll naturally give your teams permission to experiment with setting better boundaries themselves. 

Remind employees about their mental health benefit

This is a great time to send out an email or Slack message, reminding employees that they have a mental health benefit, and exactly what’s included. 

If you offer Spring Health, send out the link to their Moments library of on-demand exercises, which can help manage holiday stress, and improve mindfulness and sleep—especially during the busy holiday season. 

Also mention how many therapy and/or coaching sessions are included, for themselves and for their family members. 

If you don’t currently offer Spring Health, discover how to level up your mental health benefit with a global solution that’s precise, personal and proven.

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