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Mental and Emotional Health During the Holiday Season

“Your illness is not your identity. Your chemistry is not your character.”
- Rick Warren

The Holiday season is upon us, beginning with Thanksgiving and continuing non-stop thru New Year’s Day. The sprint from November to January can be a daunting one. We see Thanksgiving Day Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in quick succession.

We refer to this celebratory succession as “the holidays.” People experience a wide variety of emotions during the holidays, each deeply meaningful to the individual in accordance with personal and family experiences. Many will feel a growing excitement as the holiday’s drawer nearer, recalling cherished memories anticipating more of those joyous occasions. In contrast, others may experience sadness, isolation, grief, and depression depending on past unfortunate events.

Leaders and managers need to understand the impact of the holidays will vary and be felt differently by their employees.

The Holiday Season and Our Mental Health and Wellbeing

In 2020, COVID-19 and its responses added to the complexities of the levels and variety of emotions all of us feel. Dr. Scott Heyl observes, “Going through the holiday season amid a pandemic adds its own set of unexpected feelings. Whether it’s added stress about the health and safety of you and your loved ones or the anxiety over last-minute changes in plans, it’s become overwhelming to manage.”

Reasons the Holidays Impact Your Mental Health

“The holiday season is an incredibly busy time of year. Many people travel great distances to visit family. There is always something going on that people have to attend. While the holiday season is often a joyous time, it can weigh heavy on many people.

In many cases, people don’t even recognize how the holidays impact their mental health. While the Holiday Blues are temporary, if you don’t acknowledge what is going on and take action, they can develop into mental health disorders well after the holidays have passed.

There are many factors that affect your mental health over the holiday season, such as:

• Planning holiday parties, dinners, or get-togethers.

• Buying gifts for loved ones.

• Traveling to and from holiday destinations.

• Spending too much money on gifts, food, and travel arrangement, among other things.

• Spending the holidays alone or away from your loved ones.

• Feeling as if you have to throw the perfect party or give the perfect gift.

• Not being able to afford gifts for your loved ones.

• Feeling as though you can’t live up to others’ expectations.

• The holidays remind someone of a recently passed family member.

There are a handful of factors throughout the holiday season that can weigh on your mental health. If you aren’t careful, they can build up and affect you long-term. (1)

A Survey

A survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that “approximately 24% of people with a diagnosed mental illness find that the holidays make their condition “a lot” worse and 40% “somewhat” worse.” Approximately 300 individuals participated in the survey, Nov. 13-18, 2014, with 292 answering the specific question. Others detailed experiences.

“For many people, the holiday season is not always the most wonderful time of the year,” said NAMI medical director Ken Duckworth. “What the survey shows is a tremendous need for people to reach out and watch out for each other in keeping with the spirit of the season.”

“The holiday season beams a spotlight on everything that is difficult about living with depression,” said a Massachusetts woman who responded to the survey. “The pressure to be joyful and social is tenfold.”

Approximately 755 of overall respondents reported that the holidays contribute to feeling sad or dissatisfied, and 68% financially strained. 66% have experienced loneliness, 63% too much pressure, and 57% unrealistic expectations. 55% found themselves remembering happier times in the past, contrasting with the present, while 50% were unable to be with loved ones.

NAMI offers information about holiday blues at:

Helpful Leadership Responses

Cara McNulty states, “There are several steps employers can take to serve as a mental health resource as we make it through the year’s final stretch.”

Set realistic business expectations and encourage self-care

“Holiday preparations, business deadlines, and last-minute requests create the perfect storm for employees to feel overwhelmed and stressed toward the end of the year. However, employers can help make responsibilities manageable by setting realistic expectations for employees and offering their support when possible.

Create a stigma-free workplace

Too often, we forget the power of language. In order to create a stigma-free environment, employers would do well to pay attention to the words they use to describe stress and responsibilities. Phrases like, “this is a crazy time of year” or “I’m losing my mind” are invalidating to employees who may have a diagnosed mental health condition and reinforce the stigma that conversations about mental health are discouraged

Highlight available resources

If employees do need support, leaders and teammates should feel empowered to direct them to available resources. In addition to traditional, in-person counseling, there are many digital resources available to maintain resiliency and address mental health concerns.” (3)

“Emotional pain is not something that should be hidden away and never spoken about. There is truth in your pain, there is growth in your pain, but only if it’s first brought out into the open.”
- Steven Aitchison

End Notes

(1) How The Holidays Impact Your Mental Health by Lifeworks

(2) Mental Health and the Holiday Blues

(3) Addressing employee mental health during the holidays by Clara McNulty

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