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Career Coach

Beat holiday work stress before it starts

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

How can employees reduce stress at work? (Thinkstock)

How can employees reduce stress at work? (Thinkstock)

Feeling stressed out at work? Having trouble concentrating? You’re not alone.

Sixty-two percent of North American employees report high levels of stress with extreme fatigue and feeling out of control, according to a recent survey from Chicago-based, global employee assistance program provider ComPsych. In Europe, 51% of workers feel that work-related stress is common in their workplaces, according to a 2013 European Agency for Safety and Health at Work poll conducted in 31 countries.

End-of-year holidays tend to compound that stress. American pop singer Andy Williams may have crooned it “the most wonderful time of the year” but, for many workers, the last two months of the year can be downright painful.

“The holidays present a perfect storm of personal stressors: from increased demands upon one’s time, pressure to perform in terms of hosting, attending parties and choosing gifts and pressure to be happy around family members, who bring their own issues into the picture,” said Dr Richard Chaifetz, ComPsych’s chief executive officer.

Some people dread taking time off for a holiday, in fear of what will greet them when they return. “A mountain of emails, overdue reports and unexpected staffing changes can make the return to work so traumatic that many people won't take all of their holiday entitlement, which in time can lead them into a spiral of stress, depression and illness,” wrote Anita Pickerden, a Birmingham, UK-based work life balance coach in an email.

In addition, the holidays place extra demands on people who may already be stretched thin by burdens of career and family. “Unrealistic expectations of the holidays and unrealistic expectations of themselves lead people to try too hard, do too much [and] overspend,” according to Dr Richard Bedrosian, director of behavioural health and solution development for Wellness & Prevention, Inc, a Johnson & Johnson company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

All is not lost. There are a number of ways workers can manage their stress any time of year and especially during the holidays, said career and stress experts.

Sunday night blues

For many people, work stress kicks off at the beginning of the week with the anticipation of a flood of work on Monday, said Joanie Ruge, employment and career expert for global job board Monster.com. According to a recent Monster poll, 78% of more than 3,600 respondents reported having Sunday night blues with 47% qualifying them as “really bad.”

To combat these jitters, get to bed early on Sunday so you can start Monday refreshed and energetic, said Ruge. “Having a few extra minutes on a Monday morning to prepare a good lunch or going for a short 20-minute walk and having a relaxed cup of coffee can make all the difference,” she said.

“Disconnect” on the weekend, Ruge added. Instead of catching up on work, spend quality time with family, relax, mediate, immerse yourself in something creative or work on a project around the house — within reason, of course. “Plan limited tasks on the weekend, so you don’t carry any of them into the week,” thereby avoiding unnecessary stress, she said.

Simple Acts

While it might seem obvious that bottling stress up inside isn’t a good idea, getting rid of it is easier said than done for most people. You’ll need to train yourself to deal with it as it happens. “The truth is, unless you take time out regularly throughout the year to build up the stress-free environment and thoughts, then it like a putting a plaster on something that really needs a bandage,” said psychotherapist and author Derek O’Neill, who splits his time between Wexford, Ireland, and Los Angeles, in an email.

O’Neill recommended such simple acts as taking three deep breaths consciously every few hours. This can reduce your stress by 25%, he said. Another option is to light a candle and just sit and watch the flame, follow your breath and be mindful of your thoughts, he suggested. 

Weighed down

Too many rocks? Too much stress. (Photo courtesy of Gail Peterson)

Too many rocks? Too much stress. (Photo courtesy of Gail Peterson)

For years, Gail Peterson, a Missouri-based business coach and consultant, saw clients allow stresses to build up. This ended up hurting both their work performance and their personal lives. Many of these problems were most acute around the holidays.

"It's the last quarter of the year, and businesses are racing to meet the demand of the holiday customer rush and get the sales and the profit in the door,” she said. “This creates stress in a variety of areas.”

Seeing a need to give people a physical reminder of stress, Peterson recently launched a product called “Too Many Rocks in Your Pocket,” which includes 10 rocks in a muslin bag. Each rock has a different stressor airbrushed on to it: customers, profits, payables, for example. The idea is simple: By putting the rocks into your pockets as you experience those particular stressors, you become more aware of how they are weighing you down and what causes them, according to Peterson. At the end of the day, the idea is that you "empty the rocks out" — along with the stress.

"While this is a wild, exciting, and often stressful time of year for business, focusing on stress issues one at a time can better help us to resolve all the anxiety that comes with the end of the year,” Peterson said.

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.