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How HR can help employees overwhelmed by holiday stress

by Michael G. McCourt

We now are fully involved in the crush of festivities and holiday shopping that traditionally mark the beginning of the sprint to New Year’s Eve. This is the season of peace on earth and good will toward our fellow man, right? Not always.

A Challenging Season
The holidays have the uncanny ability to produce high levels of stress, feelings of depression, and sometimes misdirected anger. We have a tendency to overschedule, indulge in food and drink, and spend too much on gifts, leaving a sense of exhaustion and even resentment toward family, friends, and coworkers.

Those without close family or loved ones feel the weight of spending the holidays alone. Left unchecked, those negative feelings can lay the groundwork for short tempers, organizational conflict, and inappropriate behavior. As HR professionals, you’re charged with protecting the enterprise, which includes protecting your most important resource — the human resource!

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What You Can Do
As guardian of the corporate culture, you are uniquely positioned to provide support and inclusion to those in need through educational programs, immediate intervention, and psychological support in the form of employee assistance programs (EAPs).

We often expect supervisors to know how to effectively intervene and interact with a troubled employee without providing them with the basic tools they need to identify someone in distress. Behaviors such as isolationism, lack of humor, lack of focus, negativity, excessive conflict with associates, trouble sleeping, absenteeism, and a generally bleak outlook on life all can be signs of depression.

While there may be valid reasons for temporary periods of questionable behavior, prolonged or intensifying displays of behaviors similar to those described above can indicate a more serious problem. Supervisors should be taught to:

  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of inappropriate behavior.
  • Intervene as soon as possible or appropriate.
  • Document all interactions and recommendations made to the employee.
  • Suggest appropriate internal resources and support programs, usually in the form of HR and EAP.
  • Impose discipline and corrective actions.
  • Assist the employee in reintegrating into the workforce.

You always have the right, and in fact the obligation, to intervene around behaviors that endanger the well-being of coworkers or success of the organization. Your intervention might get the employee the help he needs to survive, and even enjoy, a stressful holiday season!

Remind supervisors about EAPs and work-life programs, which can range from “800” telephone numbers giving immediate referrals to programs that include face-to-face counseling and support. It’s important that supervisors understand the specific model and intricacies of your program.

In addition to extending the services listed above, HR professionals might also consider the following holiday suggestions:

  • Since holidays often center around families, consider being more flexible with schedules.
  • If your organization celebrates with a holiday party, remember diversity. It’s important to honor and include all your employees.
  • Limit or exclude alcohol from company-sponsored holiday celebrations.
  • Monitor employees who may be struggling, and be prepared to extend a compassionate hand.

Following those simple steps can provide the basis for a happy, healthy, and, most important, safe holiday season.

Michael G. McCourt is the founder and CEO of Michael G. McCourt Associates, Inc., a crisis security management consulting firm. Send him your crisis management questions. Michael can be reached at or by visiting