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SEASON'S GRIEVING

How to keep up employee morale during a difficult holiday season

People walk past Christmas decorations in a department store ahead of the Christmas celebrations in Berlin, Germany.
Reuters/Annegret Hilse
A season of loss.
  • George Kohlrieser
By George Kohlrieser

Distinguished professor of leadership and organizational behavior, Institute for Management Development (IMD), Switzerland

Published Last updated on

‘Tis the season to be jolly—or is it? End of year holidays including Christmas, and in the US, Thanksgiving, are usually a chance to gather with friends and family, eat a delicious meal, and catch up on the past year. But for a great number of people, the pandemic has roiled such plans, and threatens to worsen an already dire mental health predicament.

In the US, coronavirus cases are accelerating — nearly 200,000 infections are being reported daily, a record daily rate. As a result, several US cities and states have imposed fresh restrictions on gatherings to slow the spread of the virus, including Iowa and Ohio, New Jersey and California. Health experts are warning that Thanksgiving could otherwise compound the public health crisis and become a “superspreader” event.

People are facing the bleak prospect of spending the holidays alone. This should matter to managers of businesses.

But the restrictions could worsen the accompanying mental health crisis due to Covid-19, with Americans reporting a rise in adverse conditions as well as drug use, while more people are feeling suicidal. Isolation is a key factor in this, and many people are facing the bleak prospect of spending the holidays alone. Many may have lost relatives and loved ones as well.

This should matter to managers of businesses. A happy workforce is more engaged and productive; workplace wellbeing can boost organizational performance. Bosses should make mental health their business. There are several ways leaders can help employees deal with their potential sadness and isolation over the broader holiday season. For, like the Grinch, Covid-19 threatens to steal Christmas and the rest of the holiday season, too.

The first step is to reach out to employees; individually, if you run a small team, or collectively for larger work groups, to help staff understand their loss—whether a loss of life, human connection, whatever it may be. Once people understand their loss, they can begin to accept it, and hopefully move on. Leaders need to be compassionate, empathetic and understanding in this outreach process. It will help if you relate your own loss. We are all in this together.

Then, leaders need to help workers understand how important it is to be positive. This is a very difficult thing to do. The mistake most people make is telling people to cheer up and be positive. This will not work and it may backfire; you need to help the employee come to the realization that this is important on their own.

Once people understand their loss, they can begin to accept it, and hopefully move on.

The key to doing that is asking the right questions to help people change their own mindset, such as prompts about the negative impact of poor mental health and, conversely, how being happy can bring a whole host of benefits, both personally and professionally. Stress that a loss can also be an opportunity to become a more resilient and positive person longer-term.

Next, you have to help the employee find solutions to the holiday disruption and make the best of a bad situation. Many families are exchanging recipes over email, or preparing to carve their holiday turkeys over Zoom, for example. It is not the same as being physically together, but it’s better than nothing.

On balance, it is better to offer the support, even if it’s rejected.

Workplaces can also provide this sense of companionship, by organizing virtual social events through the holiday season. Leaders need to strike a delicate balance between supporting employees in their personal life, and not being too invasive and respecting privacy. On balance, it is better to offer the support, even if it’s rejected.

Another approach is to stress your appreciation for the work the employee has been doing to help keep their spirits up. Working from home, as many of us do, can make it difficult to evaluate performance and receive praise. This is an opportunity for you to offer an informal appraisal.

It may also help to mention the broader impact of their holiday sacrifice for the greater good: by staying at home they could be protecting people, literally saving lives. You might also try to look on the bright side and ask the employee to consider what is going well in their life. The holidays are, after all, a time for giving thanks.

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