Not So Happy Holidays: Supporting Your Team Through The Most Stressful Season


Deborah Hartung
Culture & Leadership Consultant | Writer | Keynote Speaker | Women in Leadership Advocate

The final quarter of any year is usually a tough one at work, as there’s a final push to reach targets or meet goals that were set. Energy levels may be waning after 9 months of working hard, yet we expect one final ‘push’ from our teams as we sprint toward that year-end finish line. But it’s not only stressful at work between October and December – it’s stressful at home too, because it’s holiday season. The Halloween decorations come down, only to make space for all things Thanksgiving and Christmas and as much as this is meant to be a ‘jolly’ time of the year, for most people, it’s really not what the TV commercials try and make it appear to be.

We are all working towards making work more ‘human’ and incorporating more kindness and empathy into the workplace because we finally realize just how important it is to truly value our people. From a leadership perspective then, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that the holiday season may be causing additional stress in our team members and we are in a unique position to really show empathy and support our colleagues. Here are some of the main stressors to be aware of in your team members and some tips on what you can do to be supportive:

Spending time with people they don’t like

Thanksgiving and Christmas may be a time for families and friends to get together and share laughter and cheer, but for many people the thought of spending time with the very family they moved across the country to get away from, is the stuff of nightmares. The very thought of having to spend time with people we don’t like – even if it’s just an hour or so in a meeting – causes most of us to experience some form of stress and anxiety. It’s easier to deal with though because it’s only for a short period and it’s only a professional contact. But when it’s someone who is part of the family, it’s a different ball game, entirely.

Parties and Entertaining

In our world of Pinterest perfection, we have created a lot of additional pressure to be the perfect host and throw the perfect party with the perfect décor, drinks and food. This pressure to be ‘perfect’ adds a significant amount of stress to an already stressful situation and it’s only exacerbated by the fact that some hyper-critical relatives or frenemies may be in attendance, rolling their eyes and pulling their noses up at everything.

Spending money they don’t have

Traveling to see relatives across the country, having them come and stay with you, the cost of entertaining, not to mention the trees and the gifts – holiday season is a very expensive season where people are often spending money they don’t really have, on things they don’t really need. This causes stress, anxiety, guilt and often anger and it contributes to a lot of arguments at home.

Loneliness and Grief

For those of us who have lost loved ones, we all know that birthdays and holidays are somehow a lot tougher than other days. We really miss our departed loved ones so much more during these times and this may cause us to be more withdrawn at work or may contribute to worsening feelings of sadness or depression.

Similarly, many colleagues may not have the means to travel to be with their family and friends or they may not have anyone to spend time with. Perhaps their friends have become their family and when these friends travel, there’s nobody to spend the holidays with. Suicide increases globally during this time of the year, partly because of these feelings of loneliness and isolation.

We are all still learning to walk the wire between friendly colleague/manager and actual ‘friend’, but that isn’t an excuse for us to not take a genuine interest in our colleagues’ personal lives and seek to understand why they may be somewhat out of sorts or snappish during the holiday season.

Part of being truly ‘human’ at work, is creating a space where people feel that they are heard and where they feel they belong. Find out a little more about their personal lives and keep notes for yourself so that you can truly engage on a personal level with your colleagues. Here are some of the things you may want to consider doing to support your employees through the holiday season:

1. Paid Time Off

Imagine being stressed and running yourself ragged to get the last shopping done or the last packing for a trip, done. Maybe you are hosting guests or events at your home and it’s a cleaning exercise just shy of ‘spring cleaning’ level intensity. If your employer were to just give you on or 2 paid hours off work to allow you to go and run those errands or do that cleaning and packing, it would make a huge difference. Your business doesn’t need to grind to a halt either – you can roster this time off, let employees choose their ‘timeslot’ and give everyone an opportunity to enjoy this amazing benefit.

2. Secret Santa and Store Vouchers

You may want to consider doing away with “Secret Santa” at work – many employees are actually somewhat resentful of having to buy a gift for a colleague they may not know very well or like very much.

An African tradition you may want to consider embracing at work, is that the employer gives all their employees (especially the lower earners), department store or grocery store vouchers. We’re not talking food stamps here. A gift card to Target, for instance, may enable your employees to buy a few necessities for the holidays. Obviously a $50,00 Target gift card isn’t going to mean the same to a C Suite Executive as it does to a lower earning employee, so you may have to put some thought into that one. What I have found here in African countries where I have worked, is that senior managers simply re-gift that gift card and it never goes to waste.

3. Family Lunch

Another practice I think may be more prevalent here in Africa and also in India, is the team ‘family lunch’. Every member of the team brings a homemade dish and gathers for a long table, family style lunch. It’s an opportunity to socialize and connect. It’s also a really nice way of including team members who may be spending the holidays alone, in some kind of celebration that resembles the real deal – without the drama of a simmering family issue reaching boiling point just around the time someone was about to pass the cranberry jelly.

I actually know a few very senior executives who invite their team members who they know are alone for the holidays, to family lunch or who host a special lunch for their entire team.

4. Re-Iterate Help

Its suicide season and it really can’t hurt to ensure that everyone in your team knows of all the free and paid support and resources that are available to them. A quick search online will enable you to find the numerous suicide prevention hotlines and other services in your city. Please share that information with your entire organization.

If you’re not sure what would work best in your company or team, you may want to encourage feedback from the employees. DirectSuggest is a great tool you can use to encourage your employees to share what support they would most appreciate. Happy Holidays!




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Deborah Hartung (https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah-hartung-2b25619/)

Deborah Hartung is a Culture and Leadership Consultant, Coach, Writer and Keynote Speaker from Johannesburg, South Africa. She has been working in HR and Leadership Development Coaching for almost 20 years and is especially passionate about the opportunities for the advancement of humanity through technology and the potential to improve the human experience in the workplace in the future of work. Deborah is an advocate for women in leadership and in addition to her global HR transformation consulting and leadership development coaching work, she writes extensively on this and other topics, for numerous publications.
Connect with Deborah: https://linktr.ee/deborah.hartung.jhb