December Holidays and Employee Stress: A Dirty Little Secret

November 15, 2016

Too soon for this? Not for employee stress prevention.

The December holiday season is a magical time of the year for some people. For other people, it’s the most stressful. When the dust settles in January, more people access crisis centres and emergency rooms than any other time of the year. It’s called the broken promise effect, when holidays promise more than they can deliver in terms of hope and renewal.

It’s the same for employee assistance programs (EAPs). More people access EAP’s in January for a variety of problems (e.g., addiction, debt, social isolation, family, marriage). This was the subject of a report that I wrote a while back when I was with what is now Morneau Shepell.

With this in mind, here are some tips for preventing and coping with stress, both during and after the holidays. Employers should take special note, given the spillover effects of stress from home to work.

For Employers:

  • Train supervisors to recognizes signs of stress, burnout, and depression.
  • Promote your EAP, workplace health program, and other official supports to employees. These are proven effective (ask me for the scientific evidence).
  • Offer flextime and similar working arrangements if possible (especially during December).
  • Monitor and manage known job stressors (e.g., excessive workload, emotional demands, role ambiguity, role conflict).
  • Longer-term? Consider job re-design and job-crafting to manage people’s job demands and resources. Provide job resources that buffer stress (e.g., job autonomy, clear and frequent performance feedback, meaningful work, social support).

For Employees:

  • Seek help and support from others when needed (e.g., supervisors, co-workers, friends, EAP).
  • Negotiate realistic work goals and deadlines.
  • Don’t put off work, problems, or concerns.
  • Designate time periods for work without interruptions.
  • Schedule and take time for detachment (e.g., breaks, recovery).
  • Keep holiday goals simple, and plan well ahead.
  • Create a realistic holiday budget and stick to it.
  • Practice relaxation techniques (e.g., yoga, meditation).
  • Maintain good dietary, exercise, and sleep habits.
  • Longer term? Explore your personality and thinking styles to better prevent and cope with future stress (i.e., resilience factors). Remember that stress is ultimately a product of perception.


Fairlie, P., & Salawu, K. (2015, May). From making merry to very scary: Profiling post-December holiday accesses to an employee assistance program. Paper presented at 11th. International Conference on Occupational Stress and Health (Work, Stress, and Health), Atlanta, GA.

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