Can you afford to totally switch off over the festive break?

Balancing professional roles and personal relaxation this Christmas

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of maintaining a healthy work/life balance, but lines can easily become blurred over Christmas. A YouGov poll has found anxiety-inducing two-in-five British workers admit to feeling stressed over the festive period, and you may be one of them.

 After a long and challenging year, we all must take time to relax and unwind but ignoring unanswered emails and leaving urgent tasks can cause anxiety that can affect your celebrations. For many of us, completely switching off isn’t possible or positive, so how can we find the right balance between our personal lives and professional responsibilities?

 Can you afford to switch off?

In the US, once the turkey is eaten and the wrapping paper cleared away, Christmas day is done, and work starts again. Known as the “No-vacation nation” by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, it’s perhaps no surprise that 46% of US workers feel stressed. UK and European workers enjoy almost three times as much holiday per year, but nearly as many feels stressed. 

 The truth is that neither shutting down and switching off entirely for two weeks or only dropping out for a day is healthy. Digital technology is the cause of much stress and anxiety; caution Dr Gini Harrison and Dr Mathijs Lucassen from the Open University. We can demonstrate signs of an unhealthy relationship with technology that can be damaging. However, it can be fixed. Scientists have found that the key to a healthy work/life balance is to check-in, not totally check out regularly.

 A study of 400 leaders in the US by academics at the Portland State University found that senior execs were able to prepare for their work in advance “experienced higher positive moods and work focus and that in turn allowed them to be more successful throughout the day.”

 The researchers found that “mentally reconnecting with work” enables leaders to be most productive. The lesson? Regularly engaging with work during Christmas can reduce stress and help you mentally prepare better.

 This doesn’t mean you always need to be “on”. During the Christmas period, it’s better to plan in short periods of focused work time answering emails or dealing with emerging issues than switching off, or even worse, watching the emails stack up on your phone. In fact, researchers have found that feeling unable to read and respond to email is a significant cause of anxiety and executive burnout. 

 Not only is this healthier, but it’s also more effective. Scientists have found that short periods of focused work are much better than prolonged periods of hard work. The ideal is a 52-minute burst, says Dr Travis Bradberry.

 Shared culture

 According to researchers, successful organisations share a “congruence of values” shaped around three dimensions: competence, commitment, and compassion. This Christmas, it’s the last two that leaders must focus on, “identifying, describing, communicating and practising” these values. 

 Practically, here’s how this can work: 

Identify – Understand and identify the pressures on staff and how they could affect them over Christmas. Can you do anything to mitigate these? 

Describe – Define what you (as an organisation and a leader) feel are acceptable behaviours. Are you happy for staff to check emails at all hours, or do you want to set limits?

Communicate – Be explicit about your expectations. Anxiety often forms in the gap between what’s said and understood, so be unequivocal about what’s OK and what isn’t. Your staff will thank you.

Practice – Exhibit and embody the behaviours you expect. If you don’t want staff to send weekend emails or contact each other at all hours of the night, don’t do it yourself.

 During 2021, leaders have had to “navigate differing and contradictory needs and interests“. It’s not always easy to protect the health and wellbeing of employees while continuing to make a profit. The end of the year and the start of a new one is an ideal opportunity to reflect on achievements and make plans for personal and professional development. It’s also a chance to connect with those you love and who love you. Whatever you do this Christmas, give equal time to both.