Workplace Wellbeing

A Therapist’s Guide for Surviving Holiday Stress

Explore practical strategies for managing holiday stress in the workplace and supporting your employees effectively.

Written by
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Kate Murphy, LCSW
Provider Lead
Clinically reviewed by
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A woman holding a mug and using a laptop next to a holiday wreath

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    Navigating the holiday season can be challenging.

    Holiday stress affects a significant portion of the population, with over half of Americans experiencing emotions like sadness and loneliness during this time. According to the American Psychological Association, 38% of individuals report increased stress during the holidays. 

    For those managing teams or working in HR and talent management, the year-end period often brings heightened intensity. Balancing regular work demands with end-of-year deadlines and goals can be overwhelming. 

    The pressure to perform at work is intensified, coupled with the added responsibilities of ensuring inclusive company holiday parties, managing dips in employee productivity, dealing with absenteeism, and addressing higher rates of anxiety and depression among employees. 

    This accumulation of responsibilities can create a situation where there’s much to be done in less time, leading to feelings of overwhelm, and eventually, burnout

    Manage holiday stress by taking care of your mental health first

    Supporting your employees is a year-round challenge, and as the holiday season approaches, you may find yourself experiencing the same stressors they face. 

    During this time, it’s common for sad feelings and difficult memories to resurface, especially if you’ve experienced the loss of a loved one during the holidays. Traditions can become painful reminders of those who are no longer here to celebrate with us. 

    The holidays can pose emotional challenges for almost everyone in different ways, and it’s crucial to shift your focus toward self-care. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and your well-being ensures you have the energy to support your teams and those who depend 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 self-care. 

    I was mindful of my daily schedule, making time for activities that brought me peace, such as practicing yoga and fostering intentional connections with my loved ones. These moments of connection filled my metaphorical cup, enabling me to provide the support my patients needed. I even watched light-hearted comedies instead of my usual 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 and reduce holiday stress. 

    Prioritize, schedule, delegate, and delete

    You don’t have to do it all—I promise. It’s natural to experience FOMO occasionally and believe we must handle every obligation on our plate. However, a packed schedule of activities during the holiday season can take the joy out of it.

    Learn to say no to events you don’t want to attend, whether in-person gatherings or virtual happy hours with friends or colleagues. Delegate tasks whenever possible. Doing so will give you more time and mental space. 

    Consider using the Eisenhower Matrix, a valuable tool to manage burnout, stress, and anxiety. This matrix categorizes tasks into four quadrants based on their importance and urgency:

    • Immediately address tasks that fall into the important and urgent category
    • If a task is important but not urgent, schedule it for later
    • If it’s urgent but not important, delegate it to someone else
    • If a task is neither important nor urgent, consider eliminating it from your to-do list altogether

    Set and keep firm boundaries

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

    Healthy boundaries are the foundation for healthier relationships, increased energy, and improved mental and emotional well-being. This can look like saying no when necessary, saying yes when it aligns with your well-being, and providing explanations when needed. Ultimately, it entails taking the essential steps to safeguard your energy, uphold your values, and prioritize your mental health.

    Once you’ve identified the boundaries crucial for your well-being, proactively communicate them. Teaching others how to respect your boundaries not only preserves your peace, but also fosters healthier interactions and mutual understanding.

    Examine all the dimensions of self care

    There are eight 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 social self-care, if attending a holiday party doesn’t bring you joy, give yourself permission to leave. Similarly, if you recognize that attending the party will deplete your energy, it’s okay to politely decline the invitation. 

    In the professional self-care area, honoring your work-life boundaries is crucial. Allow uninterrupted lunch breaks away from your desk, or take a refreshing walk when you need a mental break.

    Embracing intentional pauses during the holiday rush can enhance your productivity and focus, making you more effective in managing your tasks.

    How to support employees and reduce holiday stress

    Now that you’ve prioritized your well-being, here are some strategies to help the employees you manage and support navigate this season and reduce their holiday stress in the workplace.

    Lighten workloads wherever possible

    Use the Eisenhower Matrix we previously discussed to reduce your employees’ workloads. This approach enables you to assess their deadlines and projects critically. Determine what’s important and urgent, consider whether anything can be postponed until the new year, and identify the most suitable person to delegate specific tasks.

    Give employees permission to say no

    During the holiday season, there’s often pressure to attend numerous social events, including team activities and company holiday parties. I encourage making these events truly optional, and taking it a step further by reassuring employees that it’s perfectly acceptable not to attend—especially if it might adversely affect their mental health.

    Also, consider scheduling holiday events during the workday. Holding these gatherings outside regular working hours can add additional stress and pressure to already overloaded schedules.

    Let employees feel how they’re feeling

    The holiday season often brings pressure to experience joy and festive cheer, yet for employees who have recently lost a loved one or gone through a breakup, feelings of sadness and loneliness might outweigh the joy.

    It’s important to recognize that much of the mental distress during this time arises from the disconnect between how we think we should feel and our actual emotions. Encourage employees to acknowledge and accept the spectrum of emotions, particularly during the holidays when anxiety, sadness, and loneliness may be heightened.

    Also, check in with employees who have experienced loss or may be grieving. Simply asking, “How are you doing?” or acknowledging, “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

    During this time of year, it’s equally important to watch for signs that an employee might be struggling with holiday stress. These indicators include:

    • A decline in work performance and productivity 
    • Being consistently late to meetings
    • Appearing more tired than usual
    • Exhibiting changes in attitude, demeanor, behavior, or body language
    • For remote workers, keeping their camera off during a meeting when it’s typically on

    Taking the initiative to support someone who may need extra help can be challenging, but it’s incredibly important. Understandably, it might feel uncomfortable to initiate these conversations, as individuals in distress often won’t reach out themselves.

    It’s essential to know your team and trust your instincts. When you decide to begin the conversation, consider being vulnerable. Sharing something personal that relates to their situation can help normalize conversations about mental health and establish a safe environment.

    For HR leaders, exercising sound judgment, reading the room, listening to their intuition, and approaching these conversations with kindness, warmth, and openness are key.

    Give people the flexibility they need

    Navigating schedules becomes trickier during the holidays, especially for parents and caretakers, adding significant stress to their lives. Providing employees with additional flexibility in their schedules and allowing them to take more time off than usual can make a substantial difference. 

    Encourage the entire company to prioritize personal commitments by blocking time on their schedules to attend their child’s school events, take a mental health day, attend therapy sessions, or take a break.

    Lead by example

    Be transparent about taking a mental health day or attending a therapy appointment during work hours. Set an example for your team by openly sharing such information, like indicating in your Slack status that you have a therapy session from 8-9 am every Monday morning.

    Many employees may only take this time for self-care if they witness leaders doing the same. Demonstrating that you seek support when needed, whether through therapy, coaching, or mindfulness exercises, normalizes conversations around mental health in the workplace.

    By modeling this behavior and openly discussing it, you naturally empower your teams to explore setting healthier boundaries for themselves. 

    Remind employees about their mental health benefits

    Sending out a thoughtful email or Slack message to remind employees about their mental health benefits can be incredibly valuable, especially during the holiday season.

    If you offer Spring Health benefits, share the link to their Moments library, which contains on-demand exercises designed to manage holiday stress, enhance mindfulness, and improve sleep—particularly beneficial during the hectic holidays.

    Emphasize the number of therapy and coaching sessions included not only for employees, but also for their family members. This information serves as a helpful reminder and encourages employees to make the most of the available resources to support their mental well-being during this time.  

    Watch the replay of our recent webinar for even more ways to help employees manage holiday stress, while cultivating a connected, mentally healthy workplace.

    About the Author
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    Kate Murphy, LCSW
    Provider Lead

    About the clinical reviewer
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