Holiday stress may be hiding bigger organizational issues

Everyone's stressed during the holidays, but don’t dismiss it as just a seasonal ailment. Holiday stress may represent much more serious problems within your organization.

holiday stress
Credit: Thinkstock

The holiday season isn't all merry and bright. For many workers, it's the least wonderful time of the year. Mandatory parties, half-hearted gift exchanges and forced cheer only add to the stress and headaches that come with end-of-the-calendar-year deadlines and everyday responsibilities. They can also exacerbate cultural problems that already exist in your organization's culture around three major issues: time, money and relationships.

"The holidays are supposed to be a happy time, but when your workplace combines 'forced fun' with additional expectations that impact employee's finances and eat into their personal time -- it's a toxic combination that often backfires," says Paul White, an organizational psychologist and workforce management consultant who created the Toxic Workplace Prevention and Repair Kit.

The added pressures and stress of the holiday season, and your employees' reactions to them, often point to deeper and more problematic issues within your organization, like disengagement or burnout, says White. If employees don't feel they're appreciated, don't like their colleagues, and don't feel the organization values them and their talents, making everyone go to lunch together or exchange cheap gifts isn't going to help, he says.

"The whole holiday season can reflect and even amplify everyday stresses and conflicts in the workplace. You have to understand the larger context of these work relationships, and how disengagement, lack of trust, fear and resentment can make people not want to participate in holiday activities, especially if it's on their own time or on their own dime," White says.

[ Related stories: 7 ways to conquer holiday stress ]

The clock's ticking

In November 2015, White's recent survey of 1,200 workers revealed that the majority of respondents -- 28 percent -- were most aggravated by the additional pressures the holidays added on top of requirements to complete year-end tasks. As a manager or an executive, building in extra time before and during the holidays and being sensitive to scheduling issues and time requirements can go a long way toward alleviating this pressure, White says.

"Time is our most valuable resource, both individually and professionally, so any kind of infringement on that feels intrusive, especially if we don't have a choice," White says.

Managers and executives should actively solicit feedback about workplace holiday schedules, time off and “fun” events, but they also must remember to do the same throughout the rest of the year, says Dr. Laura Hamill, organizational psychologist and chief people officer at workplace wellness technology company Limeade.

"Use this time when you're planning for holiday scheduling and workplace coverage to get critical about your feedback loops and the processes and procedures you have. When you open up these loops, you can identify problem areas and areas for improvement, because you're going to find a lot of systemic stressors -- trust me, these aren't just issues around the holidays," she says.

You might find, for instance, that your organization doesn't have a lot of clarity around roles and responsibilities when people are on vacation -- who's responsible for taking over? Or you'll discover that the decision-making and approval process for projects is slow, or seems to be held up at the same place each time. These are areas where your organization can work on eliminating these systemic stressors, White says.

Hamill says Limeade struggled to get through the busy holiday season until they completely changed their employee evaluation and performance review schedule to a less-busy time of year.

"We used to do our performance and talent reviews at the same time of year as the holidays, in the middle of our busiest season, and then we asked ourselves why we had to do that. Now, we've changed the dates of our 'people year' so that it ends March 31, so everyone has much more time to get things done, and it's made a huge difference," Hamill says.

[ Related stories: Why high IT talent turnover is your fault ]

Spending limits

Money and financial pressure are another huge issue exacerbated by the holiday season. In the survey, 23 percent of respondents say they resent having to participate in “white elephant” gift exchanges and 21 percent say they hate the requirement to participate in “Secret Santa” giving. Twenty-two percent of respondents were less than thrilled about the expectation that they purchase gifts for their colleagues or supervisor.

This speaks to both workers' relationship with their managers -- or lack thereof -- as well as to their feelings about compensation. It's a good time to reassess how management interacts with their direct reports, and also to make sure your employees are being compensated fairly.

"You have to understand what you're trying to accomplish with gift-giving in the workplace. Are you trying to reward employees? Or are you trying to foster team and relationship-building? Then, as a manager or an executive, you need to ask your workers what they want that to look like -- and you have to listen. You can also ask how they'd like to celebrate the holidays; a lunch? A nice meal? A party? Whatever the result, don't force anyone to participate," White says.

Even if you must make a decision based on the desires of a majority, you can help alleviate frustration by acknowledging differences of opinion, White says.

[ Related stories: How to manage a multi-generational workforce ]

"For those in the minority, you should make it a point to address their concerns so they feel heard and acknowledged, even if the outcome isn't what they'd like. You can say something like, 'I wanted you to know I heard you, I understand, but I need to go with this decision. I just wanted you to know your input was appreciated,'" White says.

Workplace holiday negativity is avoidable, according to White, if you acknowledge and understand the stress in the context of larger workplace issues and work year-round to address them. And when the holidays do roll around, “Leave ample time for employees to work on any extra-year end tasks and reports, don't force workers to participate in gift giving exchanges -- explicitly or implicitly -- and be sensitive to scheduling issues and time requirements. That will help you on the path to making the holidays a true time to celebrate," he says. 

This story, "Holiday stress may be hiding bigger organizational issues " was originally published by CIO.