Heading into the holidays, "Are you OK?"

December 23, 2020 - 7 min read

sign board with the message "it's okay if you're not okay"

The ever-present sound of holiday music at the moment suggests we are currently experiencing the “most wonderful time of the year!” But for most of us, the holiday season brings a combination of joy and stress. For many, the holidays usher in the onset of seasonal depression and distinct loneliness. This year, in particular, the unique challenges and traumas of the pandemic are shining a spotlight on so many losses - time together, memories, and sadly loved ones. 

A recent study from the CDC found that the group at the highest risk during the pandemic for depression, suicide, anxiety, trauma-related stress disorders, and overall mental health risk are those in the 18-25 age group. At first glance, that might be surprising. Wouldn’t those at an age generally marked by technological prowess and with nimble thumbs for sliding well-worn paths between one social media app to another have an advantage in times of physical isolation? After all, relative to others, this group might have been most familiar with technology-mediated socializing. But, 2020 has spared no one. 

One possible explanation might be even more surprising: a disproportionate loss in social support for this age group. BetterUp Labs research on resilience found that 18-24 olds have experienced the most disruption in social support of any age group during COVID-19. 

disruption graph

Social support: 

  • significantly impacts one’s ability to be resilient in the face of uncertainty 
  • contributes to overall wellbeing and mental health 
  • important for sustaining high performance at work. 

It is no surprise then that our youngest workers are among the most likely to say a lack of motivation has been an impediment for them during this time: 53% of those ages 18 to 29 say it’s been difficult for them to feel motivated to do their work ( Pew). 

Looking back on this year, many companies provided additional support for working parents; flexible hours, additional time off. Overall, there was an increased awareness of the struggles parents face while having children at home. As their difficulties were quite visible, many found solace and connection sharing their struggles with one another, with partners, and with other parents through established school and neighborhood groups. 

And to a degree, the media and the national conversation acknowledged the unique challenges faced by the working parent population giving them a sense of belonging and validation. News stories about non-parents often focused on new hobbies or creative hacks that could make it seem like everyone was having nothing worse than fending off a stretch of boredom.  

Meanwhile, younger Millennials and Gen z, although some may also be working parents, often are the ones to provide a safety net for their teams, taking on more hours and feeling less able to push back. With attention focused on the devastation and on the struggle of parents, younger workers may have felt less worthy of raising their hand to say that they were also struggling: with feelings of loneliness, decreased wellbeing, and fatigue. Now, many are facing the harsh realities of either a holiday season in isolation or the often stressful calculation of risks and benefits of being with loved ones. And for many, it may mean an even further amplification of loneliness this winter. 

As the pandemic stretches on and we go into another round of shutdowns, isolation, and cancellations, we need to bring compassion this holiday season to members of the younger generations. They are struggling too and it is important we all pay attention.  There are many ways teams with younger colleagues can help. But it’s not just the youngest among us that will benefit. Building environments of belonging, encouragement, and empathy will support all employees during this time and combat loneliness. 

  1. Don’t skip the holiday festivities - For those who might be spending the holidays in isolation, a virtual work holiday party may be the event of the season. There are lots of ways to turn a virtual call into a party. Try some engaging games, a theme like ugly sweaters, or a paid event like virtual chocolate tasting.  But it doesn’t need to require heavy planning. The goal is social connection. And it may even spark creative ideas for how to connect virtually with their own loved ones over the holidays which is an added bonus. 
  2. Check-in with your younger employees - Sometimes the simplest way to show compassion is to lend an ear.  Especially now, it is worth asking a follow-up question to “How are you doing?”. Try some additional probes such as “How does that compare to last week” or “What have you noticed is helping you stay centered the most right now”? Being available to support and just listen can have an incredible impact on wellbeing. 
  3. Manage your assumptions - It can be all too easy to operate off of assumptions about people’s lives and their struggles. Be mindful that many people mask their struggles at work. Make space for all of your employees to feel safe sharing their authentic experiences and stay vigilant to keep your assumptions in check. Belonging is key to staying motivated during challenging times.  
  4. Practice empathy - If you do have a family at home, take a moment to reflect on what has brought you the most joy during the pandemic. Now step into the shoes of your employees who fall into the 18-26 age group. What might they be missing out on during this time in their lives? What struggles might they be facing? Keep in mind, one person’s suffering has no bearing on the reality and validity of another person’s. Comparative suffering is dangerous but empathy is the cure. 
  5. Foster encouragement - Make time during your team call for the celebration of victories and wins. Try a check-in question about everyone’s win of the week professionally and personally. Encourage your team to shout out those who made a positive impact in their week or helped them out with a project by getting the party started yourself. These are the times to encourage and recognize even small victories. 

The data is becoming clear: 2020 didn’t see age. The protective effects of social support on our wellbeing, mental health, and endurance can be profound during a time that calls for incredible resilience. How do you plan to infuse empathy, encouragement, belonging, and social connection into your year-end process? Write down a couple of ideas and share them with your coach or a colleague to help keep you accountable. And for that virtual holiday party, this year “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” may be more likely to ring true.

Published December 23, 2020

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