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The holiday season with its upbeat anthems declaring it as “the most wonderful time of the year,” often feels like “the most exhausting time of the year.” A recent Healthline survey found that nearly 50% of people say that they are stressed during the holidays, while more than 18% report feeling “very stressed.” A mere 8% of respondents report feeling the seasonal happiness promised by popular music. Financial, interpersonal and job pressures culminate in dizzying displays of activity and expectation resulting in overbooked schedules, wasting wallets and more Grinches than Cindy Lou-Whos.

Placed at the end of the calendar year, the holidays prompt reflection, and conclusions drawn color the season in shades of triumph or disappointment accordingly. In hospice, "Christmas cheer" complicates patient care, as patients and family members awkwardly reconcile their celebrations with grieving. For many healthcare providers, holidays are business-as-usual because of 24/7 patient care responsibilities. While time-off isn’t impossible, its duration is often limited by intrinsic healthcare supply and demand. Nearly everyone wants a piece of the paid-time-off holiday pie, which means that while functional, staff shortages disrupt workflow.

Unsurprisingly then, workplaces experience declining productivity because of either absent or distracted staff. Charged and conflicted emotions run rampant, and what is deemed hard work grows unbearable as composure falters beneath holiday stressors. By December 18, an estimated one-half of the workforce reaches “festive fizzle out,” the point at which more time is spent worrying about the holidays than about work. So, what can we do to help staff and patients during this trying time of “happiness and cheer”?

1) Consider an alternative to the traditional holiday party: While most workplaces host a holiday party, many do not attend because of prior commitments. What is planned as a night of enjoyment, may become just another item on a never-ending to-do list. Instead of invigorating employees, those who do attend work parties often call in sick the next day or show up to work late or hungover. Since employees already feel pressed for time right now, try to fit your celebration during worktime hours. Consider hosting a potluck or catered lunch instead of a dinner. If it’s difficult to have your employees all together at once, consider hosting smaller holiday-themed activities throughout the month. Such activities may include a hot chocolate bar, Secret Santa activity, holiday craft or service project. If a traditional party is wanted, but the Christmas season is too busy for most employees, consider hosting it closer to Thanksgiving or wait until after the New Year.

2) Do not force holiday happiness on your staff or patients: As mentioned earlier, a low number of individuals report feeling increased happiness this time of year, and so don’t put undue social pressure on others to display Christmas spirit. These expectations can make it difficult for grieving people to confide in you for fear of “spoiling” the season with their misery. Remember that active listening is often more helpful than simply encouraging someone else to “Cheer up!” It involves listening without judgement or trying to solve the problem for the person expressing themselves.

3) Set boundaries: Because this time of year is so busy, set boundaries with others so as not to overcommit yourself. Identify a few traditions most important to you during the holidays, prioritize them, and then eliminate the excess. This advice includes setting emotional boundaries. Help where you can, but do not overburden yourself with "fixing" someone or something. Inform others of your flexibilities and limitations. This can help avoid conflict and the awkwardness of saying, “no” if already difficult for you. 

4) Paid-time off: Avoid last-minute scrambles for coverage by clearly expressing your staffing needs and try to have a plan in place before Thanksgiving. Talk to each employee individually about their preferences and expectations for time-off during the holidays. Allow enough flexibility so that employees may attend to personal needs during the holiday season such as buying gifts or attending family functions. An example of this may be letting an employee leave a little earlier or come into work a little later for their shift. If an employee can do some of their work from home allow them to do so. Small gestures like this, which acknowledge an employee's individual needs have a long-term payoff by fostering loyalty.

Make sure staff understand the protocol for when and how best to contact off-duty providers during the holidays to minimize unnecessary disruptions. While many providers accept these interruptions as part of the job description, it nonetheless contributes to career and work dissatisfaction by interfering with quality vacation time.

5) Practice acceptance: Accept the inevitability of a certain amount of chaos and that despite your best efforts not everything will go according to plan. Be patient with others as you acknowledge mutual seasonal stress. Once you let go of unrealistic expectations, your capacity for enjoyment increases. Counteract disappointment with gratitude by focusing on the people and experiences shared that make for fond holiday memories or future laughs. Remember: The holidays are only once a year, and so take a deep breath, enjoy the smell of balsam in the air and the sight of twinkling fairy lights. January 2nd will be here before you know it.

Works Cited

Hughes, Michael, et al. “How to Help Your Employees Stay Productive Around the Holidays.” Harvard Business Review, 21 Aug. 2019, https://hbr.org/2018/12/how-to-help-your-employees-stay-productive-around-the-holidays.

Moss, Jennifer. “Holidays Can Be Stressful. They Don't Have to Stress Out Your Team.” Harvard Business Review, 28 Jan. 2019, https://hbr.org/2018/12/holidays-can-be-stressful-they-dont-have-to-stress-out-your-team.

Smith, Jacquelyn. “14 Ways to Stay Focused at Work Through the Holidays.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 5 Dec. 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2012/12/05/14-ways-to-stay-focused-at-work-through-the-holidays/#52a22f695319.

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