The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

Making the Best of Tough Holiday Work Schedules

Staying positive at work when everyone else is at play.

Recently, I was asked to provide some tips for people who work in the veterinary industry for how to stay positive during the holidays, with one big challenge in mind: Veterinary team members often have to work when the rest of us are home for the holidays.  While it's true that having to give an alpaca an enema isn't a great holiday gig (to my mind at least), it's also true that other folks working other jobs have to work when the rest of the world gets to play.  So, here are some ideas for staying positive at work when everyone else is at play. (You can read the original version at the My Exceptional Veterinary Team website)

Think about who will be working this holiday season while you're spending time with your family, stuffing yourself with chocolate, cookies, turkey, or latkes.  Cops, ambulance drivers and EMTs responding to accidents. Restaurant servers, sales clerks, flight attendants, and call center and hotline workers trying to help customers. Utilities repairpersons, snowplow operators, and road crews cleaning up after someone crashed into a migrating moose and knocked down a powerline.  Medical examiners performing autopsies.  Firefighters battling smoke and flames.  Executives and IT sercurity specialists scrambling to get programs back online.  Furnace repairpersons climbing out of their warm trucks into cold houses.  Doctors and nurses delivering babies and sewing limbs back on.  Plumbers snaking the clog out of your toilet.  If you're one of these workers, you know that it's tough not only because you have to miss out on all that stuff, but when you are working, your customers aren't always in the best moods (or even alive!).

First, it goes without saying - which is why I'll say it - that those of us who have jobs this holiday season are fortunate already.  My thoughts are with those who are struggling to find work right now.  Unfortunately, appreciating this blessing isn't always enough to make the season easy (in fact, it usually makes me feel kind of guilty), so let's look at some other strategies.

Here are some ways to make the best of it:

  1. Help those lucky people have even more fun over the holidays.  I know, it sounds crazy.  I'm telling you to forget for a second about how it's unfair that you're stuck working and they're revelling in the holiday break. Watching other people have fun, or hearing stories about it later, can really challenge our holiday spirit. But, it's still important, as a friend, family member, or colleague to help people capitalize on their holiday cheer by being a positive, active listener. Even though you missed out, you can get a happiness boost by helping someone else revel in their experience. There's no reason why they can't enjoy their holiday, too, right?
  2. Take Mini-Vacations at work. Now, if you're shoveling moose medley off of Highway 22, this tip might not work so well.  But, if you're part of a team that likes to have fun together, you can have small, short-interval holiday celebrations at work (if allowed by policy). Design them to be fun for one person to set up, two or more people to share, or a whole group to briefly engage in and disengage from. I'm maybe the world's worst party planner, so my specific ideas might be horrible, but the overall notion is solid.  My first idea was to have an adult-beverage-themed apple-bobbing vat, maybe bobbing for marashino cherries in white russians.  I know.  This is why no one ever comes to my parties.  Not only is this illegal at most work sites (and really a terrible idea at the rest), but it's not even the right holiday season.  My other idea would be to stack holiday cookies Jenga-like and challenge people who have a few seconds to try to extract their favorite cookie from the mix (after sanitizing their hands, of course!).  Hopefully you work with Marha Stewart and not me, but you get the idea.
  3. Remember, no one really wants to transact business at this time. Dealing with people who expect you to extract their appendix ASAP so they can get back to their holiday meal can be annoying, especially when they fail to recognize you're also away from the feast. But, all the regular tips for dealing with difficult customers work just as well - everyone always thinks their own reason for being in a hurry is the most important thing in the world. Strive for an even temper, don't let yourself get baited into an argument, clarify that some things take time, that some people are ahead of them, that everyone's working as hard as they can, and that you take their concerns seriously. Then cross your fingers.
  4. Customize your calendar. Eventually, they have to let you stop working. That's when you can get creative with the calendar. Who says New Year's Eve happens on December 31st? Set aside time to celebrate in some way with the people who matter to you when you get a chance.

Those of you who've read my blog posts before may recall that I do a lot of research and consulting around the topic of meaningful work.  From this experience, I think that most of the people who are asked to work over the holidays are in a really good position to have work experiences that really matter, and build lives worth living.  Work doesn't have to be something that just sucks your time away from the other things you'd rather be doing. We've identified a number of components of meaningful work, and being able to see that your work really helps some greater good is a big part of the picture. So, my last tip is:

  • Make it Matter.  Over this holiday season, take some time to appreciate the fact that you really are helping people, that your labor matters on a deep level to others (even if those other people don't express that very well!).  Use that appreciation to help yourself and other holiday workers ease through this busy season.

© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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