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How to identify and help employees at risk of the ‘holiday blues’

Health and Benefits|Wellbeing

By Erin Young, MSW, MBA, LICSW | November 24, 2021

For many employees, the end of the year is often fraught with additional stress. Learn how to identify and help those who are struggling.

Last December, I started receiving countless holiday cards with sentiments like “See ya never, 2020!” or “Good riddance, 2020!” with pictures of all our friends and loved ones masked up — a good attempt at seeing the humor in the pandemic and looking forward to a better 2021. Now we are at the end of another year filled with similar emotions over the pandemic. And now we’re approaching the holiday season when anxiety and depression tend to rise.

While most of us might have positive feelings around the end of the year and the holidays, we must acknowledge that our happiness may not be universally shared — especially as we exit our second year of the pandemic.

Mental health remains a top concern as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges many of us face. Employers are responding by making mental health, stress relief and wellbeing a primary focus. Our research has found:

The year-end holidays often can increase anxiety and depression, especially for those already afflicted, but after 21 months of COVID-19, many more may be challenged by these issues this year.

Signs of a problem

As a social worker and healthcare professional, I find that the discussion of mental health can be very clinical. But how does stress or a mental health condition like depression or anxiety show itself at work? We talk about presenteeism, but how can mental health and stress contribute to that? How can we spot it? What about now that many employers/employees are primarily in a virtual setting? Mental health symptoms or stress might look like the following, either virtually or in the office:

  1. Physical changes: People with increased stress or mental health issues might have a disheveled appearance, a noticeable pattern of change in proper clothing, self-care and grooming, and general hygiene. In some cases, those at risk may engage in negative coping mechanisms like substance abuse, and they may even come to work intoxicated.
  2. Changes in mood: With increased stress and worsening mental health, emotional changes may stand out. Employees may be more irritable, visibly sad or tearful at work. Someone may be less engaged in discussions or activities. As a manager or supervisor, you might notice poor concentration, poor recall of content from meetings, excessive tiredness or signs of employee disengagement. They might make comments about feeling worthless to the team or in their roles, overt or subtle suicidal comments, like “I’m so busy I want to die” or “If I get one more project, I might kill myself.”
  3. An obvious decline in the quality of work output: You may see other behavior changes that impact an employee’s work or the team ecosystem, such as not being on time for work or calling out sick more than is historically normal for that employee. You may hear your employees verbalizing mental health or stress flags, such as increased pessimism in their language or feeling hopeless about their job, task or project. Teammates may seek out a manager to voice their concerns about an employee, something historically out of the ordinary. Work products that were once regularly superb may now be suboptimal, with a lack of attention to detail or being incomplete or late.

Mental health and stress impact each person differently. We should always be on the lookout for the signs of mental health or stress in someone’s life, but we should be especially alert in the coming months because holidays can worsen a well-managed or mild condition. The list above is a starting point. Changes in tone, approach, appearance or style can be signs of depression, anxiety, or even a full-fledged mental health crisis.

How to help struggling employees

Once you spot the signs of stress or mental health conditions in the workplace, what do you do about it? How can employers act with intention for the best interest of their employees’ mental health, wellbeing and resiliency?

  1. Ensure there is a comprehensive wellbeing strategy in place that provides ample resources for employees to feel supported and seek out the necessary care they need.
  2. Provide training to supervisors and managers on the importance of mental health and stress management, creating a stigma-free environment and navigation to resources.
  3. Coach management staff on how to have conversations about mental health and stress with their colleagues in a stigma-free, empathetic way.
  4. Think about the vertical and the horizontal. Create mental health and stress friendly policies for employees that are supported from the top down, such as flexible time off or flexible work arrangements. Empower managers to think creatively for solutions that fit their employees’ needs and empower employees to ask for accommodations. Be sure that support such as resource groups, peer support, educational information or mental health campaigns are available equally to all employees regardless of rank or title.
  5. If the problem appears to be widespread, consider unique, holiday or end-of-year appreciation gestures beyond financial rewards, such as company-wide early closings or other time off, especially if business volume is down during the holidays.

The end of the year can be challenging for many facing a long, cold winter and unknowns in 2022. But the New Year also brings the promise of new beginnings.


Senior Director, Health Management

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