Year-end gifts your employees will really appreciate: less stress, more time and a big thank-you.

By Brandi Britton

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alancing personal and work obligations is a struggle for busy professionals any time of the year. But the holiday season — when intense work deadlines collide with a whirlwind of shopping, parties, travel and more — adds an extra layer of pressure and stress that can make employees feel, shall we say, less than festive.

And then, just like that, the holidays are over. Employees are back at their desks, facing a mountain of to-dos that they were desperate to finish before the break but just couldn’t find the time to get to. Silently, they promise themselves that next year will be different: “Next year, I will do everything I can to make sure I have time to actually enjoy the holidays.”

Managers can help them out. Supervisors can make it easier for their workers to find time to experience the joy of the season by rethinking office traditions such as the company-hosted holiday party. While this annual celebration can be fun and meaningful, it is also one more commitment for employees in an ultra-hectic season. In fact, only about one-third (36 percent) of workers surveyed by my company, OfficeTeam, describe this event as entertaining. A nearly equal percentage of professionals — 35 percent — give it a big thumbs down.

Year-end gifts your employees will really appreciate: less stress, more time and a big thank-you.

By Brandi Britton

B

alancing personal and work obligations is a struggle for busy professionals any time of the year. But the holiday season — when intense work deadlines collide with a whirlwind of shopping, parties, travel and more — adds an extra layer of pressure and stress that can make employees feel, shall we say, less than festive.

And then, just like that, the holidays are over. Employees are back at their desks, facing a mountain of to-dos that they were desperate to finish before the break but just couldn’t find the time to get to. Silently, they promise themselves that next year will be different: “Next year, I will do everything I can to make sure I have time to actually enjoy the holidays.”

Managers can help them out. Supervisors can make it easier for their workers to find time to experience the joy of the season by rethinking office traditions such as the company-hosted holiday party. While this annual celebration can be fun and meaningful, it is also one more commitment for employees in an ultra-hectic season. In fact, only about one-third (36 percent) of workers surveyed by my company, OfficeTeam, describe this event as entertaining. A nearly equal percentage of professionals — 35 percent — give it a big thumbs down.

However, there shouldn’t be a rush to cancel the eggnog and tinsel just yet. Taking a different approach to how the office celebrates the holidays could be all that’s needed to make employees feel they’re attending an event that’s well worth their time — and for the company to feel satisfied that its budget is well spent.

Take Justin Gray, founder and CEO of LeadMD, a marketing and sales consultancy company based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He brings his entire team together for an annual holiday weekend at a local resort. The company pays for remote team members and their significant others to travel to the event.

“It’s a great team-building exercise, and it lets people know that we care,” Gray said. “I think of everything we do for our teams as an investment. If you want the best from your employees, you have to create experiences where they feel appreciated.”

Handling the Workplace Holiday Rush

For some businesses beyond retail, the holiday season — November through February — is the busy season.

This means heavy workloads, tight deadlines and the need for collaborative teamwork more than ever as many companies are winding down. Research from my company’s research arm, the Limeade Institute, shows that burnout happens when employees have high stress but low well-being. So we’ve come together as a company to keep our people balanced, productive and healthy during this time.

Here’s what we found works best:

Reorganize annual events to alleviate employees’ schedules: Like most companies, we launched annual employee reviews at year-end. Now we’ve moved our annual reviews to February, so employees can approach them thoughtfully and reflect on all they’ve accomplished. We also pushed our holiday party to midyear so our employees can spend their time with family and friends. And while most companies send customers holiday gifts in December, we send gratitude gifts just before Thanksgiving.

Push for real PTO: We encourage employees to use their vacation time by year-end. In fact, our research shows those who take all of their vacation days are more engaged. Some employees prefer to take a long break just after the busy season. Because of this, we roll over up to 160 hours of PTO per year.

Support employee well-being: Throughout the busy season, we developed a Refresh Yourself campaign that promotes employee well-being — something often neglected when the pressure is on. We’ve offered chair massages, fruit-infused water, smoothies, yoga and meditation sessions, stretching stations, brain games and had the leadership team cook breakfast for employees. An optional office decorating contest and ugly sweater competition brings spirit to the office. In the meantime, remote employees receive care packages so they feel included and supported.

Help employees manage stress: Stress is inevitable during the busy season, so we help employees feel energized and motivated versus run-down or overwhelmed. We coach managers on how to help their team deal with stress and bring in guest speakers on how to stay positive in stressful times.

Our advice to those whose busy season ramps up during the holidays? Test new ideas, measure success and improve every year

— Laura Hamill is chief people officer at Limeade and chief science officer of the Limeade Institute.

Hosting a low-key get-together before the holiday break can be a good option for employers, too, said Susan M. Heathfield, a human resources expert and writer. Heathfield is the owner of two Michigan-based businesses: management consulting firm Heathfield Consulting Associates and software company TechSmith Corp.

“We decided a long time ago that the holiday season is the absolute worst time of year to have a company party,” she said. “It’s so hard to get people together. They just don’t have the time. Plus, they would rather spend what time they do have with their family and friends.”

Heathfield said TechSmith officially closes for the holidays at noon on Christmas Eve and hosts a casual lunch at a local tavern for any employees who want to attend — and they are welcome to bring their family members, too. Then, in February, the firm really pulls out all the stops.

“We hold an extravagant party to celebrate our company’s founding birthday,” Heathfield said, adding that almost all of TechSmith’s 285 employees usually attend this annual event, and most invite their family and friends along, as well.

Giving All Employees a Break

Shutting down the office between Christmas and New Year’s Day has become a common practice for many employers. Heathfield and Gray both agree that doing so has a strong, positive impact on employee morale — and can help with retention and recruitment efforts, too. Gray said he has received “so many notes ” from staff members over the years, expressing their appreciation for this simple gesture. “And we have an unlimited paid time-off policy, too!” he said.

For companies that can’t close down their office during the December holidays, Gray offers a suggestion: “Consider providing a ‘floating week’ option that can be used around Thanksgiving, during the Christmas holiday season, or during the summer,” he said. “There are low productivity valleys in every business. You can capitalize on them to provide big value for your team while still providing great service to your customers. Just be sure to clearly communicate to your teams the number of staff who can be off at a given time.”

Flexible scheduling practices throughout the year can also help workers maintain their work-life balance — and prevent them from facing a mad rush during the holidays, said Heathfield. “A lot of pressure at the holidays is self-imposed,” she said. “People are trying to do too much in too little time.”

Like Gray, Heathfield also encourages employees to take their vacation at less busy times of the year, when they can really rest and come back to work recharged.

4 Simple Ways to Help Employees Stress Less During the Holidays

Small gestures can have a big impact. Managers looking to make the holidays less intense for their workers could consider applying the following strategies.

  1. Give workers time to shop. As Cyber Monday has become an increasingly important holiday shopping day, companies have become more accepting of their employees seeking out deals online while at work. Forty-three percent of workers surveyed by Robert Half Technology said their boss or company allows them to shop online during Cyber Monday. However, a majority in that same survey (65 percent) said they’d prefer to have a work-free day on Black Friday.
  2. Eliminate the “secret Santa” pressure. Don’t worry; scrapping this holiday tradition won’t make you a Scrooge. It’s an easy way to give workers the gift of time. They’ll have one less gift to shop for and wrap. Of course, ask employees what they’d like to do. If they truly enjoy the secret Santa tradition, keep it. If not, do something else — like donating directly to a local charity that everyone on the team has a say in choosing
  3. Schedule a desk-clearing day. Break out the holiday cookies, turn on some festive music, and give employees an afternoon in early December to clean their inboxes, organize their calendars and fully assess what they may — or may not — be able to finish before the holidays. This process will help them prioritize their work in the weeks ahead. They can also alert managers to potential workload issues that can be addressed before they become major headaches.
  4. Avoid setting big deadlines for year-end. If possible, don’t set too many (or any) major deadlines for staff members during the holiday season. “Try not to make the end of the year a deadline for everything,” said Heathfield. “Think about setting major due dates around Nov. 15 or even earlier. Businesses have more flexibility to do this than they often think.”

If a pre-holiday work crunch is inevitable, managers may want to bring in reinforcements. Interim employees can help ensure that critical work gets done at this chaotic time of year when team stress is running high. Temporary staff can also cover for workers taking extended vacations during the holidays.

Another tip for managers: Set a good example for employees. Supervisors should take vacation time when they can and participate enthusiastically in the company’s holiday activities. Also, refrain from emailing or calling your team members about work-related matters when they’re off unless it’s an absolute must.

— Brandi Britton

Welcome in the New

While the end of the year is a logical time to reflect on team accomplishments and set new goals, managers might want to wait until after Jan. 1 to dig into numbers and talk strategy with their staff. However, they need to be careful not to pile on too much too soon in the new year: Taking time off and then coming back to heavy workloads can be stressful for professionals during the holidays.

Instead, managers can consider planning a team celebration to ring in the new year and get energized for the first quarter. This event could take the place of the traditional team celebration in December — thereby also helping to reduce employees’ end-of-year stress. In early January, when all staff members are back from the holiday break, everyone can be taken out to a restaurant. Just going out for burgers doesn’t cut it: Supervisors should try to invite employees somewhere special.

During the meal, people are encouraged to talk about their holiday experiences. After everyone has had a chance to catch up, the conversation can shift to business. Leadership should outline the company’s objectives for the year and get everyone focused on working toward them.

“Goal setting is important at both the individual and departmental level,” Heathfield noted in an article that discussed the New Year’s lunch strategy. “Employees also need to see where their job and goals fit into the bigger picture.” She urges employers to keep the atmosphere of the post-holiday lunch “positive, uplifting and forward-looking.”

Managers should also make a point to let all their employees know how much they are appreciated — both before and after the holidays, and really, all through the year. Failing to do so could not only undermine employee morale and productivity but also jeopardize the firm’s ability to retain talent.

The top three types of recognition that employees value most? Money, paid time off and a personal thank-you from their employer. And the return on investment for a sincere thank-you can be significant for managers, according to Gray. “I hand-write notes to each employee every year, and that has been one of the most appreciated activities I do — beyond even big commission checks, charitable donations and sharing stories of customer success,” he said.

He added, “To create a connection with your staff, you have to be willing to go one-on-one. I know that if I foster individual connections with my employees, in return, they are going to go deep when I need them to.”


Brandi Britton is a district president for OfficeTeam. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.