Nurture employees’ mental health during the holidays

By Brooks Jackson | Guest Editorial

For many people, the holiday season is a time of joy, reflection and celebration. For some people, it also can be a time of stress, anxiety and sadness.

This is true for individuals at home and with family, but it’s also true for employees, co-workers and colleagues. In some cases, work may compound the stress caused by holiday spending, family commitments and busy schedules.

And while December can bring a sense of accomplishment for the past 12 months and a sense of optimism for the coming year, it also can elevate stress and isolation in the workplace. Employees may have difficulty balancing family holiday obligations with work responsibilities. They may feel guilty about taking time off or worry about coming back to unfinished business and heavy workloads. And they may struggle with managing day-to-day operations with a reduced workforce due to holiday vacations.

It’s important to note the distinction between “holiday blues” and clinically diagnosed depression. The feelings that characterize the holiday blues – sadness, loneliness, tension, fatigue and lack of concentration, for example – also can be symptoms of depression. The difference, however, is that these feelings are temporary and typically result from the stress, interactions and memories that are part of the holidays. Depression is a persistent and serious mood disorder. The good news is that it’s also treatable.

Many employers are able to achieve a balance of meeting their end-of-year business goals while also keeping employees’ interests, schedules and general well-being in mind. But for some companies and organizations, it’s a real challenge.

To that end, the following are some practical suggestions for keeping employees healthy and engaged during the holiday season:

Reduce the cold/flu risk. Getting sick around the holidays is more than lost work time; it can also add to employees’ stress and anxiety. Prevention is key. The cold and flu season typically hits hardest after the start of the new year – that is, after employees have been in close contact with family and friends over the holidays. Remind workers that it’s not too late to get a flu shot. Also, share information about the benefits of handwashing and keeping common work and break areas clean to help promote a more virus-free workplace.

Reflect upon the past year’s achievements. Everyone likes to be appreciated, and happy employees are more productive. Given that the holidays can be a time of high stress and competing commitments, make it a point to celebrate successes and genuinely thank employees for their contributions. Acknowledgement of accomplishments can help renew focus, boost morale and ultimately enhance productivity.

Foster understanding of employees’ mental health needs. Iowa, like many other states, faces serious challenges when it comes to meeting the behavioral health needs of its population. Efforts are underway to address the problem, here in Iowa and around the country, but this will take time and resources.

Despite greater awareness and understanding of behavioral health and stress management, a stigma persists that prevents many employees from acknowledging mental health conditions or seeking help. Unfortunately, an emotional or stress-related issue is still viewed as a weakness or liability in some workplaces. Some employees won’t seek help, or even admit to a problem, for fear of being considered unreliable or unproductive. Others may fear losing their jobs entirely.

As employers, we can do more to change such perceptions. The holidays are a great time to share information about community mental health services, company wellness programs and other resources. Together, we can reinforce the message that mental health affects everyone – at home and at work.

If you or someone you work with is experiencing symptoms of depression beyond feelings of sadness or stress around the holidays, talk to a doctor or trained mental health professional. Help is available.

Brooks Jackson is University of Iowa vice president for medical affairs and dean of the UI Carver College of Medicine.

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