Your assignment for the office holiday party: come up with threeSecret Santa gifts: a white elephant gift, a food gift and one thatbegins with the letter “R”.

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As if the holidays weren't stressful enough.

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Workplace holiday stress can range from things like the minor,but true, example above to major bouts of depression and anxiety asworkers juggle end-of-year duties with family responsibilities andissues.

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Read: High stresscontinues to plague workers

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“For some people it's a very difficult time,” said Bert Alicea,vice president of EAP and Work/Life Services at Health Advocate, an employee assistance program based in PlymouthMeeting, Pennsylvania. “Maybe they recently lost a loved one, maybethey're experiencing some financial issues… the holidays cancompound these problem and create additional stress, anxiety anddepression.”

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The end-of-year crunch

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Gretchen Stein, president and CEO of the Sand Creek Group, an EAP based inStillwater, Minnesota, says her company regularly sees an uptick inactivity around the holidays. She notes that for many businesses,they're rushing to meet annual deadlines, which just adds to theworkload for employees.

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“Most companies we work with are on the calendar year, so it'sthe end-of-the-year business crunch, and then you add all thethings you have on the personal side of life,” she says.

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And of course, workers are stressed by a range of familyobligations. One idea that experts stress is that workers should beencouraged to take care of themselves — get enough sleep, watch thealcohol intake, don't neglect the exercise routines. Even takingsmall breaks can help ease the stress.

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“Take 15 minutes, if it's sunny go outside and rechargeyourself,” says Lisa Orndorff, HR manager at the Society for HumanResource Management. “There are so many extra pressures. Takingcare of yourself during the holiday season also links to staying well. Ifyou're burning the candle at both ends, it's not gong to last verylong.”

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Orndorff said something as simple as reminding workers to stayhydrated can make a difference. “A great thing the employer can dois make hand out water bottles one day — just a little something toremind them to take care of themselves.”

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Managing stressed workers

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“Everybody's in a rat race to get their stuff done,” Alicea saysof the holiday crunch. “We need to be able to slow this processdown a bit.”

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So how can managers help employees do that? Alicea recommendedthe well-known concept of “managing by walking around;” simplyhaving more interaction with employees in order to look for redflags of over-work or other kinds of stress.

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“The managers can spend more time one-on-one with employees,just checking in with them, going to the lunch room to sit withpeople, just to see how they're doing,” he says. “That can reallygo a long way, because people know that you're taking an interest.If you can take an interest in them as a person first, then thework is going to get done, and probably will get done a lotbetter.”

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Giving workers a little more flexibility is a tactic that manyemployers are trying, and experts agree that it can beeffective.

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“We're a big proponent of flex time,” Orndorff says. “Employeesare generally more productive if they can work from home.”

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Orndorff also counsels mangers to take a deep breath whencommunicating with employees during the holiday season. “Theyshould try not to take the stress out on the employees,” she said.“It's important to take a minute or two to check themselves beforethey shoot off an email — the approach should be, 'Let's just getthrough all this together.'”

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Rich Bayer is the CEO of Upper Bay Counseling and SupportServices in Elkton, Maryland. He has listed 11 ways managers can help employees deal with holiday stress.Among his suggestions: make an effort to improve communicationduring the holidays; consider hiring temporary staff if the workload is overwhelming; be sensitive to cultural differences duringthe holiday season; and simplify stress-adding work activities likeoffice parties and decorations.

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EAPs — a year-round resource

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Of course, managers and business owners have their own stressesduring the holiday season, which is why an EAP can be an invaluableresource.

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“If the company has an EAP, that's a perfect tool that a managercan offer,” Orndorff says.

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With 24-7, 365-days-a-year services, EAPs are ideal for helpingwith serious issues such as depression or anxiety during theholidays. But EAPs can address a range of issues, Alicea says.

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“A lot of people still think EAPs are for drug and alcoholproblems — if I don't' have that problem, I don't need it,” hesays. “But there's a whole other side of EAPs that can help. Somepeople struggle with child care during the holidays, or elder careissues, or legal issues.” EAPs can help, he adds.

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EAPs can also help educate employees about how to handle stress,and (importantly for this time of year) manage expectations aboutfamily get-togethers and interactions. “We talk to people aboutexpectation, and what's reasonable,” Stein says. “You don't have todo it the way grandma did it.”

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EAPs can also assist with the financial crunch that someemployees experience. “We get a lot of calls after the first of theyear with people who have spent too much money and need help withtheir debt,” Stein says.

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But Stein and Alicea warned that creating a robust EAP programis a year-round job. They recommend regular communications withemployees about what a company's EAP offers, along with remindersduring the holiday season.

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“The time to batten down the hatches isn't when you're knee-deepin water,” Alicea says.

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Isolation — the biggest danger during theholidays

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Experts warn that the biggest emotional problem for workersduring the holidays can be a sense of isolation — especially commonwith people who have lost loved ones or who live alone. TheHR experts interviewed for this article agreedthat managers should look for red flags among workers who may belate for work, having conflicts with co-workers or emotionaloutbursts, or withdrawing and becoming less productive.

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“Social isolation is a big factor during the holidays,” Aliceasays. “People who are lonely are already disconnected. Bywithdrawing, people can compound the problem.”

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Stein said managers should be mindful of employees andco-workers who may be going through transitions or facing theholidays on their own.

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“It's important to look at co-workers and friends and see whomay be making some major shifts in their lives,” she says. “Bringthem into your circle or family — don't leave them out therealone.”

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