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Jennifer Newman: How workplaces can ease the stress on staff during the holidays

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says some bosses recognize that people have many demands on them at this time of year

Workplace psychologist says some bosses recognize that people have many demands on them at this time of year

People often have to juggle a lot of responsibilities during the holiday, on top of their usual job, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Getty Images)

The holiday season is a wonderful time of year, but it also means shopping, decorating, family responsibilities and Christmas parties.

And then people still have to go to go to work and meet work deadlines and their manager's expectations.

"It's very bad sometimes," said workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman of the stress felt by employees at this time of yaer.

Newman sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to talk about the causes of the stress, and what managers and staff can do for each other to ease the burden.

Rick Cluff: Lots of workers seem stretched and tired at this time of year, how much worse is it during this season?

Jennifer Newman: It's very bad sometimes, basically because there's a clash between ideals and what's actually manageable. It starts to hit hard this time of year. There are lots of competing needs — to be productive at work, to make the holiday joyful, and keep the kids happy — and all of those activities vie for worker time.

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

For example I spoke to a restaurant owner who observed how much she had on her plate. She was overloaded; work was frantic and expectations for a family-packed holiday were stressing her out, with visitors from out of town. She was trying to do it all and it can take a toll.

They're being pulled from all sides! What are the effects on workers?

There's fatigue and short tempers, so you're not having any fun. And people do feel compelled to be happy when they're not. There's pressure to be everything to everybody. People might then engage in emotional eating.

The pressure to be social at this time of year can be very intense. It's okay if you're gregarious, but if you're suffering from any kind of social anxiety it's very difficult, and some socially anxious people will sometimes drink to overcome those feelings. People are run off their feet trying to get everything done.

But it's not all doom and gloom. The holidays are a chance to engage in familiar traditions, and there's comfort in that. That's also why there are plenty of workplace events. They do built camaraderie, and that's why you'll often see plenty of office and work site holiday parties. It is a time to get together, but it is also stressful.

Yet, during the holidays, the concept of work-life balance goes right out the window?

Completely. If we mean that staff can be equally focused on work, home and seasonal activities, it's impossible. The concept of equally balancing everything is a bit of a myth. People do get worn down around this time of year, and stress results when workers can't meet high expectations set at home and at work. You have to adjust expectations, rather than trying to meet impossible standards.

But, that's easier said than done when the boss expects a high level of productivity.

They do, but a lot of bosses recognize this time of year is different. I coached the head of an organization who planned for a slowdown. She recognized the situation and made allowances for it. She knew people were going on vacations, and some of her staff would be assisting older relatives, and that school closures and child care needs would be an issue for many.

Organizations can help even in little ways, like bringing in a gift-wrapping-for-charity group, if that's what's needed, or catering lunches. Or promoting flex-time to help workers manage.

So, to survive the season, workers need to adjust their expectations?

In a way. It's really about our relationship with stress. Instead of trying to reduce it, or get rid of it, workers can ask what stress is teaching them about themselves.

A good example of this is perfectionism. Perfectionistic workers struggle at this time of year, because everything has just got to be just so. So this can, ironically, be a great time to tackle these tendencies.

I talked to a perfectionistic retailer and observed how especially at this time of year, she insisted on doing things alone. She believed, erroneously, that she had to do everything by herself or she was inadequate. The stress helped her see how impossible this was.

In another situation, an anxious worker found his stress levels skyrocketing. He noticed he was dreading getting together with his argumentative extended family, and it was starting to disrupt him at work. He decided to arrange things differently, and would leave family functions early before tensions erupted. So the holidays can be a chance to get to look at ourselves and make changes for the better.

As well as focusing on how staff handle their own stress, can colleagues help each other at this time of year?

Absolutely. Shift workers routinely swap shifts. Staff without seasonal obligations will take hours over for workers with young families. If someone has no family in town, I've seen colleagues invite them over.

I've heard of a colleague who found the holidays depressing. She was able to talk to a co-worker about how she felt, that co-worker listened, and the pressure to pretend was lifted. All she needed was to feel accepted, and have someone listen and understand. And that's what you can do for folks too, around the water cooler.

This interview was condensed and edited. 

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Jennifer Newman: How workplaces can ease the stress on staff during the holidays


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