Combatting holiday stress, the HR way

Weathering the personal and professional stress of the coming holiday season isn’t easy, but HR has a key role to play in helping employees get the support they may need.

With nearly two-thirds of people surveyed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness reporting that holidays exacerbate their conditions, providing access to mental-health resources is a critical first step, notes Cara McNulty, president of Behavioral Health & EAP at Aetna.

“Everybody will experience something,” she says. “It might be something less severe, like stress or anxiety, or it might be something more severe. If it’s not you, individually, it’s someone you’re connected to.”

The end of the year can also be a time to start the cultural shift, if needed, to acknowledge that seeking mental-health help is normal, instead of being stigmatized. Even during busy December weeks, it’s possible to provide workers with the space and opportunity to talk about coping with holiday stress over a brown-bag lunch or in other gatherings.

Related: Employers taking a bigger look at mental health

“I worked at a company where [a] senior leader–who always looked like he had it all together–shared what a stressful time the holidays were for him, how he handled the stress and what it looked like for him to utilize the benefits this employer offered,” McNulty explains. “It was profound.”

Employees can help each other, too, by watching out for signs of emotional pain. These may include a variety of personality changes, such as behaving erratically; being angry or withdrawn, acting nervous, agitated or short tempered; being physically present but not emotionally present; neglecting self-care, etc.

“One of the biggest issues we face right now is social isolation,” McNulty notes. “It’s not just with the elderly population–it’s happening across all generations.”

See also: 7 ways to (effectively) address mental health in the workplace

Organizations also can reduce stress by emulating tech companies that provide many services and programs that support their employees and promote productivity. Flexible schedules, working from home, providing easy access to healthy food and snacks, and promoting increased activity such as standing, walking, getting outside for some sun and fresh air–all of these help associates better manage their energy levels.

McNulty adds that giving employees the opportunity to volunteer during the season offers personal as well as community benefits: “We know that, when people volunteer and are doing something for others, it raises our mental wellbeing and our connection to our employer because we’re feeling good about what we’re doing.”

Organizations also should set realistic expectations and encourage everyone at all levels to focus only on top priorities through the end of the calendar year–and avoid taking on additional initiatives unless absolutely crucial. “This is the idea of making reality your friend,” she says.

As for employees, McNulty suggests that they set realistic expectations for themselves as well. “Just pick one thing you’re working on, say, trying to get more sleep or setting realistic expectations for yourself or sticking to a budget. You don’t have to do it all.”

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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at