Is it normal to be super stressed at work before the holidays?
As workers rush to finish up outstanding tasks before the end of the year, it is not uncommon for 'holiday burnout' to set in
December should arguably be the most wonderful time of the year. This is particularly true when you are lucky enough to live in Australia and the annual festivities of Christmas (as well as both the Gregorian and Orthodox New Years, Hanukkah and Lunar New Year later in January to name a few), line up with what is often stunning summer weather. (At least, when La Niña is not visiting Down Under.)
Time off is vital for resting, recharging, gaining new inspirations and experiences, spending time with our friends and family and undertaking other activities that contribute to our overall wellness. And companies often ask employees to take annual leave over this time period. Yet when it comes to counting down to the holidays, it can sometimes feel like time is both speeding up and slowing for extra work that needs to be done to ‘cover’ the fact you are going on annual leave.
Dr Andrew Dhaenens, lecturer in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School, says this can sometimes be because of an individual’s drive to ‘finish up’ for the end of the year and celebrate that achievement.
“End-of-year celebrations and similar rituals are reflective of that. In short, being able to shake off the events you would like to leave behind and celebrate what you have done well as a team. When workplaces have positive cultures, everyone understands the rhythms of the business and shares in the celebrations and challenges together,” explains Dr Dhaenens.
But what happens when your to-do list at work is as long as your holiday shopping list, and the longer hours mean that you feel more burnt out than celebratory?
What is holiday burnout and why do we experience it?
The Black Dog Institute defines burnout as 'a form of emotional exhaustion that can occur in response to persistent and unrelenting stress'. If you feel ‘exhausted, unable to concentrate and want to withdraw and disconnect from the world and those around you’, it could mean you are heading for burnout.
According to Dr Dhaenens, while a holiday away from work is a valuable time to practise self-care, the lead-up can trigger people to experience these feelings of burnout. He says this is because, in part, people naturally compartmentalise their identities between ‘work’ and ‘life’.
"The rush we put ourselves through before the holidays is our way of making sure that we have the space to rest, recharge, and detach,” he explains. “People spend time on holidays working on their mental health with rest, relaxation, and reflection alongside their hobbies and travels, and they don’t want any leftover work to interfere with this.”
Dr Dhaenens points out that often the pace of work can match up with the pace of the industry you have chosen to work in. “The reason behind these rushes is the nature of our work,” he says. “Different industries will have different deadlines and expectations around dates in the calendar. For education, it is around the school year, whereas for finance it might be a separate fiscal year.”
Read more: Is Australia ready for a four-day work week?
What should I do about holiday burnout?
Dr Andrew Dhaenens says when it comes to solving the issue of feeling overworked in the lead-up to the ‘silly season,’ it is definitely a problem to be solved by both employees and managers working together to figure out clear goals and define end-of-year deadlines.
“If you feel like your work rush is not sustainable, you should talk about expectations with your supervisors and co-workers in your developmental network," he says. “Busy seasons and holidays are really a product of our relationships at work and our reactions to these can be impacted, improved or even worsened, by conversations with others.”
As he explains, holidays provide a natural distance to rest and recharge. “In closing off stretches of work, everyone is forced to determine which tasks are most important. Upon reflection, it may be a product of poor planning or limited resources. The relationships we maintain are key to our own support and success. Take the opportunity with holidays to sit down and have these conversations, about what you can and cannot do now and into the future,” he suggests.
And it is not just for employees. If you are a manager, Dr Dhaenens advises also taking the opportunity to debrief, discuss non-negotiables and celebrate accomplishments with your team through social activities and more, in order to mitigate employee burnout at this time.
How has hybrid work impacted holiday stress?
With working from home and hybrid work set to continue for many people, what will be the impact on stress levels when we sabotage our own set boundaries? Many can relate to wanting to quickly check ‘just one work email,’ or respond to that notification, disrupting our much-needed downtime.
“When it comes to tools such as electronic calendars and IM platforms like Microsoft Teams and Slack, it does suggest limited options for conveying (and signaling) where we are and how we are working (or not). ‘Busy’ does not always mean busy, and ‘out of office’ is our only real signal that we are away on holidays or annual leave,” says Dr Dhaenens.
“While there has been lots of discussion around flexibility in workplaces, this can reflect a real issue as people work in different places at different times. Considering the 'everything, everywhere, all at once' sort of year we have all had, it can be very tempting to fall back into work cycles. Yet, there is so much evidence on benefits of taking time away on our wellbeing.”
But Dr Dhaenens – who has co-founded the Hybrid Work Leadership Research Lab, which operates out of UNSW Business School – says balancing considerations around work arrangement preferences, as well as turnover, is an issue companies continue to be concerned with.
It’s one of the reasons he and research lab co-founder Professor Karin Sanders are continuing to work with industry to research the area, such as the impact of micromanagers on workers in a hybrid workplace. “Our initial research is pointing to the fact that your perception of your wellbeing at work – for example, how much support you think your manager is giving you, and how much learning and connection you have there – is a big factor in giving your work-life balance and liking your workplace,” says Dr Dhaenens.
“From the manager down, your team should know the rhythms of work, the rest and reward after the busy times needs to be there. Take the opportunity to connect and celebrate together. Remember, 2023 will be a challenging, but exciting year, as managers and organisations really think about who they are, and who they want to be for employees.”
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At the end of the day, you don’t always have to stick around
"Work is obviously a big portion of our lives but is not everything,” says Dr Dhaenens. “If your workplace leader takes the time to know their reports, and their challenges, and work together to make their life better inside and outside work, everyone is going to get better results. If not (and if you have the flexibility), it might be worth seeking employment elsewhere. While it is important to balance the fact that sometimes you need to ‘do the tough work,’ not only to climb your career ladder, but to learn and grow, if the rewards are not there, it is simply not something that will be sustainable,” he says.
“Sometimes you get through to the other side of the holidays, and it really is a dusting off with a ‘Phew! Glad it is done.’ Other times, it may be an ‘I’ll never do that again.’ Because at the end of the day, taking time for annual leave gives us space to consider what is important. And sometimes, when you go on leave, that might mean you begin to reconsider if that environment is the right one for you to continue in.”
Andrew Dhaenens is a lecturer in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School. With a background in human resources, his primary area of research is mentoring with supporting areas of interest in careers, family business and social networks. For more information please contact Dr Dhaenens directly.