5 Tips for Managing Year-End Stress

The pandemic is likely to make fourth-quarter/holiday stress much more pronounced. Here’s how leaders can help.

She began to worry about it as early as August. An experienced marketer, she knew perfectly well that in the soon-to-arrive fourth quarter, everything from year-end budgets to holiday marketing plans would make her job hard. But this was August 2020—which meant the looming specter of the pandemic would double, maybe triple this stress.

’Tis the season that so many workers dread. Not only are the holidays approaching—a source of stress for some—but work pressure usually mounts significantly in the fourth quarter that is now underway. And this year, of course, there is COVID-19 and the toll it is creating, from forcing people to work isolated at home to slashing business left and right. It’s little wonder that according to at least one survey, roughly 70% of workers say this year has been the most stressful of their careers. “There’s no question that many people are fearing the next few months,” says George Atkinson, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Human Resources Center of Expertise.

Can managers and leadership help? Clearly, many are concerned, so we consulted with several experts who provided the following thoughts on how to help employees struggling with mental health issues this holiday season.

Look for distractions.

Experts say unusual or out-of-character behavior could be a sign of a potential issue. Some examples include an increase in calling in sick, a sudden change in demeanor, and a decline in work quality. They caution, however, that reprimanding or calling employees out could make matters worse. Instead, Atkinson says, managers could use these changes as an opening to ask how employees are doing and offer encouragement and help if needed. “Make the extra effort to humanize the connection,” he says.

Reach out to women and people of color.

It’s well noted that the pandemic and ongoing racial unrest have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black Americans. Data also shows that depression rates are higher in certain racial groups and with women and the LGBTQ community. Together, these groups could be more vulnerable to experiencing mental health issues this holiday season, says Louis Montgomery Jr., leader of Korn Ferry’s Human Resources and Diversity Officers practice. “It’s easy for these groups to look back on this year and feel pretty bad,” he says. Montgomery encourages leaders to connect personally with these groups to make sure they know they have an outlet to talk. He also advises women and people of color who are struggling with mental health to seek out employee assistance groups specific to them.

Set the right tone.

One of the biggest obstacles to getting people the help they need is that many are reluctant to express their feelings. Leaders have to set the right tone by making it very clear that employees can share their struggles openly and safely, without fear of repercussion—not only inside the workplace but outside of it as well. “Let people know that it is OK to vent and talk about what is happening in their worlds,” says Atkinson.

Connect employees with available resources.

Most employees aren’t aware of what support is available to them, either informally or through their medical coverage. Korn Ferry data shows that 20% of employees don’t understand their benefits coverage. Experts say it is incumbent on managers and human resources leaders to communicate the availability of benefits like psychological counseling, telehealth programs, employee resource groups, and other means of support.

Increase pulse surveys.

Believe it or not, not every employee responds to their company’s pulse surveys. But they should. With organizations using pulse surveys more frequently to gauge sources of stress and anxiety because of the pandemic, the feedback from employees can help provide leaders with a real-time snapshot of overall mental health leading up to the holidays. Regular feedback, though anonymous, could help provide a sense of employees’ work-life balance, for instance, or feelings of isolation, and lead to more flexible scheduling, a “mental health” day off, and more frequent face-to-face check-ins. It could also help organizations determine whether outside professionals such as psychologies or firms specializing in mental health need to be enlisted.