When the festive season leads to burnout

Navigating work and home life commitments can be difficult, becoming even more so in the lead-up to the end-of-year holiday period. A quality and sustainable work-life balance is essential and helps us maintain optimal physical and mental health; however, the juggle becomes more complex during the festive season.

Under pressure to work additional hours, workers in the retail and hospitality industries can struggle to create and maintain a balance between work and home life.  Increased trading hours, high customer volumes, and generally higher levels of stress presenting in customers make this particular sector at a higher risk of burnout, stress and anxiety at this time of year. Businesses experience stress as they manage increased stock levels and staff scheduling, while floor workers often work modified rosters to meet consumer demand.

Seasonal stress can be triggered by a number of factors, including financial pressures, excessive commitments, and the expectations placed upon an individual by their workplace, their family and themselves. 

At this time of the year, regular work, schooling and family routines are often interrupted. The mental overload can run high, and juggling additional balls often leaves people feeling overwhelmed and lacking control. Working parents of school-age children may find it particularly difficult to manage, as schools close down for the holiday period and they have to balance carer responsibilities with work and other personal commitments.

Many organisations will have an enforced annual leave period during this time, and, while this close-down period may work for many families, for others this time off work will create additional financial stress. 

A recent Healthline study (2015) reported that 62 per cent of respondents considered their stress levels to be “very or somewhat elevated” during the end-of-year holiday period. Seasonal pressures and expectations, particularly when unfulfilled, can result in feelings of disappointment and grief, and psychologist Justine Alter emphasises the importance of recognising these feelings and learning to manage them appropriately.

“We find that many people begin to feel overwhelmed with their responsibilities. They feel unable to cope, and this triggers stress and associated feelings, including guilt, resentment and sadness,” she said.

Increased levels of stress can trigger irritability, a lack of patience, interrupted sleep patterns resulting in tiredness, loss of appetite and general difficulties in managing general day-to-day activities. If not recognised and addressed, these symptoms of stress can result in mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression.       

Offering practical support

Many businesses acknowledge that their workers need support at this time of the year, but they struggle to find practical ways to support their staff. Alter is often approached by businesses concerned about staff stress levels during the Christmas holiday period.

“We receive queries from a number of businesses towards the end of each year that are looking to help their workers navigate what is for many employers, one of the busiest times of the year,” she said.

Alter continues on to say that workers who receive support from their workplace are often better equipped emotionally and mentally to create and sustain an effective work-life balance. This can lead to improved productivity in the workplace, and workers who are more receptive and able to better adapt to a change in roles and/or additional responsibilities. Demonstrating to workers that they are valued and appreciated during the busier times of the year can go a long way towards building staff morale and quelling feelings of resentment that can develop with higher stress levels.

Tips for business:

  • Encourage workers to utilise any employee assistance program (or similar program) available to them  
  • Consider running workshops and offer training that focuses on maintaining good overall mental health and managing stress and anxiety in the workplace
  • Keep the lines of communication open; this can encourage workers to feel comfortable raising concerns 
  • Lead by example where possible; utilise any possible flexible working arrangements

Tips for workers:

  • Talk to your family, let them know that you are struggling and need some additional support
  • Manage stress triggers to avoid increased risk of mental health disorders; identify situations that leave you feeling anxious and develop strategies to manage these feelings so that they don’t become overwhelming
  • Where possible, talk to your manager/employer/colleague if you are struggling with an additional workload; share your concerns and make them aware that you require additional support

The Black Dog Institute recommends a number of strategies, including prioritising and identifying what is most important, learning and using relaxation techniques, and taking care of your physical health. Learning some basic strategies to manage the festive season workload can assist in managing stress levels and feelings of anxiety, and result in a better work-life balance. Alter agrees, and offers a number of key tips:

  • Be realistic, not everything will go to plan.  Be kind to yourself, prioritise your needs when making plans
  • Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Keep communication open with family and friends who may initially struggle to understand if you opt out of certain activities.  Saying ‘no’ at work can be more difficult; if necessary, keep your social schedule lighter on the busy work days, and use any free time to do an activity that you enjoy
  • Continue healthy eating and exercise habits over the holiday period; a healthy diet can reduce fatigue, and even a moderate amount of exercise has been shown to improve mood levels
  • Self Care: Be kind to yourself, and allow yourself some down-time when needed.  A short 20-minute walk, reading or a social phone call can leave you feeling in a more positive frame of mind
  • Reach out to family and friends if you feel that you need additional practical or emotional support. If any feelings of anxiety, or an inability to cope continues, talk to your GP, who can offer further guidance and support.

Rachell Bugeja is project administrator at Transitioning Well, which helps shape and support parental leave, work life and mature-age transitions and provides services to fit the needs of organisations and employees.

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