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Have Yourself an Inclusive Holiday Season at Work

A guide to planning low-stress holidays in the workplace.

Key points

  • Inclusive thinking during the holidays goes far beyond celebrating cultural traditions with food and décor themes.
  • People experiencing drastic life changes, financial issues, or physical and mental health challenges might be particularly stressed.
  • It is important to practice emotional and financial inclusion.
Kira auf der Heide/Unsplash
Source: Kira auf der Heide/Unsplash

Holidays are stressful. Before the pandemic, 38 percent of people said their stress increased during the holidays, and only 8 percent felt happier. For many, much additional stress has accumulated since then, as many people have experienced the grief of loss, illness, and the anxiety of economic uncertainty. This means that leaders, office party planners, and thoughtful colleagues must think carefully—and inclusively—about making holidays considerate and inclusive.

Inclusive thinking during the holidays goes far beyond potlucks celebrating various cultural traditions and decór themes mindful of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. People experiencing specific stressors associated with life events, financial situations, and physical and mental health might be particularly impacted by holiday stress—and it is as important to be mindful of emotional triggers as it is about food allergies.

But if the thought of adding more considerations to your holiday checklist is horrifying, relax. We can be considerate not just by adding but by subtracting. Here are a few ideas for how to remove certain holiday stressors and annoyances.

Respect financial sensitivities.

Money is one of the key holiday stressors. And some people have lifelong money anxieties.

Adding way: In the workplace, this is where adding might beat subtracting. Even a modest holiday bonus can make a major difference for a struggling employee.

Subtracting way: Do not demand spending in addition to the "optional but really required" office party. Those invites with "everyone must bring a gift that costs at least $X" can be terrifying. That same amount some pay for two fancy coffees might be someone else's weekly food budget.

Make sure to avoid "cheap" shaming. You don't know about other people's financial situations or financial trauma. Allowing gag gifts, blatant regifting (some will do it anyway, so might as well), and homemade items can make for much more memorable fun. And, if in doubt, just make it a clutter (a.k.a. present)-free holiday.

Respect emotional sensitivities.

Holiday blues are a thing, and emotional inclusion is a must. Here are a few ways to practice it during the holidays.

Adding way: Leaders and "season planners" might ask, "how do we best care for you?"—and follow up with personalized support. Participation and voice go a long way toward feeling included, and this type of consideration will be greatly appreciated.

Subtracting way: Don't make everyone "share a gratitude" at the "holiday spirit meeting"—or at least allow options ("a gratitude or a life lesson"). A clear option to skip and not participate might be extremely important to people struggling with grief and loss. Make it clear that it is OK not to be OK. Really. Chuck "cheer-guilting" along with "cheap-shaming."

Respect sensory sensitivities.

Your favorite jingle can trigger migraines for one team member, cause sensory overwhelm for another, and trigger posttraumatic stress disorder–connected memories for a visitor. And now, long COVID is associated with dizziness and chronic ringing in the ears (tinnitus), which can be torturous and made worse by music.

Adding way: When playing music in a shared area, make sure everyone is OK with the type of music, volume, etc. Don't assume that if people are not saying anything, they are OK and not bothered. Ask proactively.

Don't expect those who need quiet to wear ear protection or just suck it up. That would add pressure on those already stressed.

Subtracting way: Low volume, instrumental music, or nature sounds are generally best tolerated by people in open offices. But the best way to accommodate everyone is to keep shared areas quiet while allowing everyone to listen to what they wish via personal headphones. The technology is here.

And when it comes to lights, low intensity and no blinking works best—that is, if anyone has the energy and inspiration to put them up at all.

Provide a human touch for all.

What if adding bonuses is not an option, and finding treats that work for every dietary restriction is more than you can handle?

Adding way: No worries. A heartfelt note of gratitude goes a long way.

Subtracting way: Here is a subtraction that will likely be appreciated by everyone: Take a look at various obligations with a focus on finding something that does not really need to be done (A meeting? A report? Extra holiday-related tasks? Something else that sounded like a good idea back in September?).

And then subtract that from people's agendas. That will likely cause some good cheer.

Holidays are stressful. But we can chill. Inclusively.

This post was published in the "Best Work for Your Brain" newsletter on December 4, 2022.

More from Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D.
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