Ah, the holidays. A time of great food, great cheer and sometimes, great stress. But great productivity at work? Not so much.

We sat down with our resident organizational behavior and HR management expert Professor Cindi Fukami to discuss why employee productivity declines around the holidays, how long this “holiday effect” can last, how employers can help keep their employees motivated, and the one industry in which stress is unavoidable this time of year.

Q: What are some of the factors that contribute to a decline in employee productivity during the holiday season?
A: Many employees experience higher than normal levels of stress during the holidays due to things like decorating the house; shopping for and wrapping gifts; parties and gatherings; family obligations; children on vacation from school; and travel. Work-life balance is hard to begin with and even if we enjoy them, the extra tasks for the holidays create more obligations and demands on us. Conversely, some employees may not celebrate the holidays so they may feel burdened in different ways.

Q: How long does this “holiday effect” typically last?
A: It can start as early as Halloween these days, as retailers are pushing for sales earlier and earlier. Thanksgiving can create stress and extra work as well. There are some reports of post-holiday blues, which may last into January.

Q: What tips might you offer employers to keep their employees motivated during the holidays
A: Employers need to realize that their employees will be distracted by family obligations and it will not be useful to try to chain them to their desks or monitor them for online shopping and other activities. Instead, they should think about granting flexibility in work schedules and maybe even offering nontraditional benefits to help with workloads. Things like concierge services to help purchase or wrap gifts; assistance in making travel arrangements; and day care, baby-sitting or organized activities for children who are on vacation from school. Also, employers should think about giving their employees some time off—even if it’s just a half day here and there. Finally, I’ve observed some employers who give those celebrating Hanukkah time off during their celebration days in return for working at Christmas. Those taking time off at Christmas in return can carry a bigger load during Hanukkah. Again, not everyone celebrates these holidays, so it may not work for every company.  

Q: What should employers keep in mind during the holiday season to help foster a healthy, happy, productive workplace?
A: Remember that your customers are going through the same thing, so it may be hard to get work done as appointments are hard to make, meetings are hard to schedule, etc. In short, less will get done no matter what you do. In other countries, companies shut down for a week or so, which might not be a bad option depending on other factors. Remember that there is nothing you can do if you work in certain sectors like retail. It’s just part of your job to be stressed during the holidays!

Q: Any other parting thoughts?
A: It’s more a plea: Companies should not lay people off in December. It’s just unkind.