THE BLOG
12/12/2012 12:03 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

More Employees Need Support, Not Parties, at Christmas

Christmas is a roller coaster season, heightening both people's fun and any anxieties.

Among employers the issue is usually one of hitting the right balance over celebrations: not wanting to be a Scrooge, but doing their best to avoid unnecessary dips in productivity (all those extended lunch hours for Christmas shopping, wasted days after parties the night before).

But employees who overdo the festivities is less of a problem. It's straightforward enough to remind staff of obligations and make sure managers set a good example. Much more difficult is managing people who are struggling because of personal issues brought into worrying focus in the run up to Christmas. Perhaps it's their first year without a loved one after a particularly painful bereavement, divorce or break-up. Maybe they can't afford to give their family the Christmas they want to after a spouse was made redundant. They could even be in the midst of yet another row, because of the decision to spend, or not to spend, the festive season with the in-laws. Whatever the reason, the pressure we all put on ourselves to have a perfect Christmas can, and certainly does, cause some people who might have been just about coping to suddenly feel overwhelmed and distressed.

At best this can result in them becoming downcast, withdrawn and unproductive. At worst it can spiral into a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression, prompting them to withdraw themselves from the workplace and call in sick until the whole thing is over, by which time they might find themselves feeling so hopeless they struggle to return to work at all. Exaggerated as this scenario might seem, in the course of providing support to employees over Christmas, we see it played out across organizations large and small, year after year. Yet just a little additional support from work is often all it takes to not only keep someone present and productive but also protect their emotional well-being.

For someone who's experienced a difficult change in personal circumstances during the year, such as a divorce or a parent going into care, it's important for their manager to take them aside and tell them, in an empathetic and caring way, that they realize Christmas might be a bit more difficult for them this year, and ask if there's anything they can do to help. This might be as simple as allowing them to come into work later in the morning if they need extra time before facing the world.

More often than not, just knowing that their boss cares and wants them to be okay can be hugely reassuring in itself. Having the opportunity to talk things through with someone and getting an external perspective on how to deal with their first Christmas alone, for example, can be very helpful. In the event that their line manager doesn't feel comfortable offering specific advice, it's still important to ask them how they're doing and offer support, even if that's just reminding them about the Employee Assistance Program and encouraging them to chat with a specialist.

Firms can also help by not adding to Christmas pressures on people. Jollity should always be voluntary and people shouldn't feel obliged to always join in with parties and other events. It's also helpful to think about the return to work in January -- generally felt to be the most uninspiring time of year -- and what the experience will be like for those people who may not have had the best of breaks. That might mean encouraging line managers to avoid high-pressurized activities with tight deadlines, make-or-break meetings, etc.

Whether you feel able to support an affected individual yourself or think it best to direct them towards appropriate third party support, the important thing is to cut them a bit of slack if they need it, and maintain an open dialogue so that people feel able to tell you if they're not coping -- especially if they're surrounded by well-meaning but high-spirited colleagues. Most of all, it's simply about you showing the human face of people management.