The holiday season is supposed to be a time of peace, joy and fellowship. Millions of families and friends get together for gift-giving and feasts. Many companies throw holiday parties, providing employees a chance to mingle with colleagues and swap presents. Stores are decked out in holiday finery, with seasonal music playing to inspire a generous mood in shoppers.
But not everyone is in the mood for merry-making this time of year — the holiday blues are a real phenomenon, according to an analysis in Psychology Today. An American Psychological Association survey cited in the article found that more than a third of respondents reported stress due to “lack of time, lack of money, commercialism, the pressures of gift-giving, and family gatherings.”
One surprising survey finding is that more than half of respondents — 56 percent — said they experienced higher levels of holiday-related stress at work than at home. That can be especially true if there are reductions in the workforce, which isn’t unusual at the end of the year. Layoffs can be stressful whether an employee is directly affected or not.
More than half of respondents (Psychology Today) — 56 percent — said they experienced higher levels of holiday-related stress at work than at home. @micheledamico14 #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart https://bit.ly/2rGoHpx
Look for signs of holiday stress
HR professionals don’t double as onsite mental health experts — both roles require extensive and highly specific training — so there are limits to what HR can do to address the holiday blues. But as an HR professional, employee relations are a core focus of your job, and on a human level, you want to alleviate suffering and offer help when you can.
So, what can you do to help employees who are suffering from the holiday blues, particularly if you suspect that conditions at work (imminent layoffs, industry changes, etc.) may be a contributing factor? The first step is to learn to recognize the signs that an employee’s behavior might indicate a more serious problem than typical workplace stress. Signs could include the following:
- Lack of engagement: The employee is no longer participating in company activities and doesn’t seem interested in office goings on.
- Change in appearance: The employee’s dress or grooming habits have changed, e.g., showing up at work with an unkempt or disheveled appearance.
- Physical ailments: The employee complains of frequent headaches, panic attacks, anxiety, sleeplessness, or fatigue.
- Change in personality: Formerly outgoing employees become withdrawn, do not engage in conversation, seem hopeless.
- Increase in absences: An employee with a good attendance track record suddenly starts calling in sick frequently.
- Substance abuse: The employee shows up to work under the influence or hungover from excessive drinking or other substance abuse.
Any of these signs could be a signal of a serious mental health issue or problems beyond the normal range of stress people feel at this time of year. If the company is going through a reduction in force, some employee distress is completely understandable and to be expected since affected employees (and their colleagues who are staying with the company) are undergoing a transition that significantly impacts their lives. However, when a person’s reactions are extreme and an individual seems to slide further into negative behavior, these signs could indicate that the employee needs outside help.
End of year workforce changes add to stress
If layoffs are occurring close to the holidays, the effect on employees can be magnified since the holiday season often brings additional stress due to concerns about money, which are obviously heightened by the prospect of job loss. As an HR professional, it’s a good idea to monitor the general mood within the company and to keep an eye out for signs that an employee is in distress.
At many companies, frontline managers are best positioned to monitor employees since they interact with staff throughout the day. But managers tend to focus almost exclusively on performance and may not know the warning signs. For that reason, a program to help managers spot signs of trouble might be helpful, particularly if the company is downsizing.
Employee wellness programs
Many businesses have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) in place to help staffers who are going through a tough time in their personal or professional lives. According to the International Association of Employee Assistance Professionals, approximately 65 percent of employers offer EAP benefits, and for larger companies with more than 5,000 employees, 97 percent provide EAP assistance.
EAP programs can be the first line of assistance for HR professionals who are concerned about an employee’s wellbeing. Typically, EAP programs offer the following services to employees:
- 24-hour crisis support by telephone
- Confidential assessment and short-term, solution-focused counseling
- Referrals and follow-up for specialized care
- Emergency intervention and critical incident stress management services
- Substance abuse expertise
Depending on the program, EAPs can also offer services to the HR and management teams, including the following:
- Training for supervisors and HR
- EAP orientation for employees
- Communication and awareness materials
- Consultation for management to address specific issues involving employees
- Risk management assessments
Although the majority of companies in the U.S. offer EAP benefits and virtually all large companies have a program in place, utilization may vary considerably from company to company, as do awareness levels for both employees and managers. If you have general concerns about employee wellbeing, raising awareness about the EAP among frontline managers and employees may be a good idea.
You can raise the issue with the executive team and gauge interest in an initiative to provide training to frontline managers on EAP benefits. You can also ask about providing materials to employees to let them know what the EAP offers. Most EAP organizations have materials that can be used for this purpose.
Open communication and caring
More directly, you can offer help to employees as an HR representative, letting them know that your door is always open if they need to talk. It’s a balancing act for HR professionals since there’s a limit to the help you can offer as a company representative. But you can relate to employees on a human level and let them know you care about them.
The same is true for managers who may be dealing with a tough situation in a business unit that is experiencing change. You can let managers know that you are a resource and provide them with information on hotlines they can refer employees to — your EAP can likely help in this regard, providing the EAP hotline number and/or topic-specific resources that have been vetted by the EAP.
Most companies that offer EAP benefits let employees know about the resource during orientation, but information overload during the onboarding process could mean that employees are unaware of it when they need help the most. Communication about the EAP benefit during the holidays or when the organization is going through a transformation can help.
Communication about the EAP benefit during the holidays or when the organization is going through a transformation can help. @micheledamico14 #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart https://bit.ly/2rGoHpx
Some companies are reluctant to publicize the EAP benefit because they fear higher utilization could lead to a price increase. But it’s important to weigh the true cost of stress, substance abuse and mental health issues in the workforce that are left untreated. A Harvard Gazette article cites research that indicates work-related stress has a negative economic impact of $30 billion each year in the U.S.
In an economy where change is constant, and maintaining positive relationships with future, current and former employees is central to the employer brand, it’s a good idea to be proactive and foster a culture of health and wellness within the workplace. In that spirit, it pays for HR professionals to be alert to warning signs in stressed out employees and to help frontline managers recognize trouble signals too.
Ironically, the holidays — a time when joy, peace and goodwill — can have the effect of amplifying stress in the workplace. In the true spirit of the season, HR professionals can reach out and help their colleagues cope with the changes and stresses this time of year may hold in store.