‘The most guilt-ridden, nightmare time of year’: how to avoid holiday season burnout at work

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Nearly two years into the pandemic, Americans are burned out. New research from Eagle Hill Consulting shows that more than half of U.S. employees are experiencing burnout, with women and younger workers reporting the highest levels of stress. 

The end of the year usually offers a brief reprieve from work, whether it be a day off or a much-needed vacation. The weeks leading up to the holidays, however, can often exacerbate burnout as workers juggle end-of-year deadlines, performance reviews, travel and holiday parties, among other obligations. 

According to a report from YouGov America, most people find their stress increases, rather than decreases during this time of year. Of the 2,434 Americans surveyed, 52% said the holiday season is stressful for them. 

"If you're someone who struggles with setting work-life boundaries, or you're a people pleaser, this is the most guilt-ridden, nightmare time of year," Emily Ballesteros, a burnout management coach in Chicago, tells CNBC Make It. "There's a lot more responsibilities to tend to, and a lot of guilt around attending or not attending holiday events."

Another factor contributing to this drain is the unpredictability the holidays often bring, Ballesteros adds. "People are out of their normal routines because they're visiting family, or there are more social demands, which means less time to recharge," she explains. "It's easy to slip into feelings of overwhelm." 

But you can manage year-end stress with the right mindset and tools. Below, Ballesteros and two career experts share their best tips to avoid burnout while working during the holiday season. 

Know your non-negotiables 

Ballesteros needs three things to get through her hectic work schedule: quiet time in the morning with a cup of coffee, at least one hour spent reading and some kind of exercise. She stresses the importance of establishing your "non-negotiables" ahead of the holiday season: "the routines or activities that keep you sane," as she describes them.

It's critical to find time or replacements for these practices even if you're traveling or working from a different location, she notes. "There's often a lack of control this time of year, and it's common to feel like a victim to your schedule — but that mentality won't help you fight burnout," Ballesteros says. "Setting boundaries and checking in with yourself will help you respond instead of reacting to any problems that arise."

If you're working from home and it's still hard to step away from the computer, Nathan Peirson, the chief human resources officer at Paycor, an HR software firm, suggests having a brief check-in with your manager. "If you frame the conversation as something you need to do in order to better support your team and stay engaged with your work, it will really help both you and your manager," he says. "You can tell them, 'Hey, I'm looking at spending 30 minutes each morning or afternoon to disconnect, it will really help with my work.'"

Communicate plans clearly, and often

One of the biggest challenges of the holiday season is keeping track of everyone's different vacation schedules. It can make meeting end-of-year deadlines and communication feel frustrating and even impossible at times, Lauren McGoodwin, the CEO and founder of Career Contessa, notes. "It can be chaotic! You could be waiting for responses or help from multiple co-workers who are out of office at different times, so your to-do list feels like it's always growing," she says. 

McGoodwin suggests changing your email signature to include the dates you will be out of the office so people know when you will be unreachable. Then, check in with your manager and teammates to check the days they're planning to take off and remind them when you will be out of the office. "You want to be able to truly enjoy your time off without a lot of people emailing you … that can cause a lot of anxiety," McGoodwin points out.

Setting clear goals for which work you have to finish before the end of the year and communicating that plan to your manager is another smart tactic to stay organized. McGoodwin recommends pacing yourself by focusing on the most urgent, high-priority projects first and checking in with your team to see if any tasks can wait until after the holidays. 

Add a self-care ritual to your routine 

Even after setting hard work-life boundaries and talking through your schedule with your manager, holiday burnout can creep up on you. "Not only is your laundry staring at you after a long day of work, but so is the box of decorations you need to put up, or that holiday shopping list," McGoodwin says. "This time of year can feel very frazzled." 

Finding a daily ritual that helps you de-stress can help you stave off burnout. For McGoodwin, that's writing a to-do list each night with a clear set of goals for the next day. "Practicing this ritual helps me feel like I have a little more control over my schedule, and it gives me the peace and satisfaction of feeling like I'm making progress at work as I cross items off the list," she says. 

Peirson suggests adding movement into your daily routine, whether it be a quick walk or an online fitness class, to decompress. Carving out time in your schedule, even just 15 minutes, to exercise can clear your head and "put you in a positive frame of mind," he adds.  

However you choose to recharge, just make sure self-care is a priority — not an afterthought. "It's easy to put yourself on the back burner during stressful seasons," Ballesteros says. "But then come January and February, you're just a husk of a person."

Check out:

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How this 25-year-old earns and spends $33,000 a year in Chicago
How this 25-year-old earns and spends $33,000 a year in Chicago