The holiday season is a time for celebration, fellowship, cheer and the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends … right?
Despite the songs we’ve grown up with admonishing us not to pout or cry, for many the holidays can be a time of sadness, loss and feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
According to the National Institute of Health, people experience a high incidence of depression during the holidays and hospitals and police forces report high incidences of suicide and attempted suicide. One North American survey reported that 45 percent of respondents dread the holiday season.
Why can the holidays be so sad? There are many reasons, including heightened levels of stress and tension from long to-do lists, excessive Christmas commercialization, crowds of shoppers and frenzied children demanding treats and the latest toys. According to a recent Consumer Reports poll, Americans spend an average of 15 hours attending holiday social gatherings — often with people with which they might not otherwise spend time. This might be great for extroverts who thrive in such settings. But what about introverts who gnash their teeth when confronted with a room full of people?
Even the climate and shorter days conspire against us. The shortest day of the year means less light and associated seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This well-documented disorder results in sleep disturbance (too much or too little), depression and anxiety.
Busier schedules result in less time to take care of ourselves through exercise. And then there’s all the holiday snacks and food with which to contend.
Even those fortunate to have a good job could be struggling to support family member who are unemployed and underemployed. The added expectation — both commercial and self-induced — to spend a lot of money on gifts and incur increasing debt compounds the stress.
Those who suffered the recent loss of a loved one are especially at risk for depression. The void left by a loved one’s absence is especially difficult during times of family traditions and gatherings.
Employers need to be sensitive to these employees and can take proactive steps to lighten the load and brighten the season.
If an employee’s depression is serious, help them seek out a qualified mental health professional. Shelly Williams, benefits director for the City of Grand Junction, encourages all employees to keep an eye on co-workers who could be in trouble and refer them to the city’s employee assistance program. Many employees have completed voluntary training to help them identify and help at-risk coworkers.
The American author Mark Twain once said, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer somebody else up.” Employers can do this by encouraging and organizing charitable activities.
Darla Fortner, human resources manager at Enstrom Candies in Grand Junction, said various fund-raising activities at the company support United Way of Mesa County. Owners Doug and Jamee Simons match the funds raised.
Williams said the city also encourages employees to contribute to United Way and even set a fund-raising record this year despite a salary freeze and down economy. Both organizations also participate in Adopt a Family.
Barb Brattin, director of the Wilkinson Public Library in Telluride, said library employees collect food and warm coats for Angel Baskets, which provides food, clothing and other assistance for families in need.
According to Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage,” when people become stressed, they tend to divide themselves from those around them, including family, friends and co-workers. “But the most successful people take the opposite approach. Instead of turning inward, they actually hold tighter to their social support.”
A lavish holiday party isn’t necessary. Focus on opportunities to bring employees together. Fortner said the holidays are the busiest season at Enstrom Candies, so the company treats employees to impromptu meals.
Brattin said families could encounter difficulty finding child care, so the library provides child care while employees attend the holiday party.
Discourage the expense of exchanging gifts. Conduct a white elephant gift party or organize a potluck.
Brattin said the library budgets a certain amount of money on employee activities each year. Any money left in the account is disbursed to employees at the end of the year.
Following that example, employers could take the money they might have spent on an elaborate holiday party and disburse it to their employees instead.
To promote a healthy holiday season, encourage employees to look out for one another. Create opportunities for charitable giving and activities. Bring employees together. Discourage expensive gift-giving. Have fun.
John Gribben is president and owner of Triad EAP, a Grand Junction-based firm that provides a range of services to employers and employees throughout Western Colorado. Gribben also belongs to the Western Colorado Human Resource Association. For more information about the WCHRA, including upcoming meetings in Grand Junction, log on to www.wchra.org.