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Perfect Holiday or Perfect Storm?


Recognizing & managing Seasonal Stress for Foodservice

The holidays are a time of great joy and celebration for many, but for hospitality and foodservice workers, the holiday run-up can bring a unique set of challenges and stresses.

As de facto “holiday experts” foodservice employees bear the brunt of our collective dreams of the ultimate holiday meal, party or event, and it’s a lot. As demand for restaurant and catering services surges in parallel with guest expectations, foodservice employees are counted upon to meet these heightened needs. The human cost of delivering the perfect experience or working last-minute booking magic can find themselves emotionally and physically drained.

First, there’s the increased workload and long hours resulting from the flood of holiday reservations. Then, there’s the pressure of hyped-up and often impatient customers seeking holiday perfection, which can escalate service tensions. But, the greatest challenge of all may be the demand on foodservice workers’ time and the resulting sacrifice of time spent with their loved ones and on their own well-being. When you’re on tap to deliver everything on your guests’ wish lists every day, how do you prioritize your own?

Melanie McGregor, Manager, Quality Improvement and Development at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) acknowledges that while the holiday season is experienced by different people in different ways, foodservice employees are more likely to be exposed to many key stressors. “Everyone’s experience around the holidays will be unique. Some people will be extra stressed, some won’t. It seems that foodservice and hospitality would be industries where things would get busier around the holidays.”

Common holiday stress factors include increased demands in our personal lives and/or work lives, increased financial challenges, family and social issues, drinking and eating more, high personal or social expectations, and recent losses of loved ones. With restaurants and foodservice in the eye of the holiday storm, McGregor points out that these common or broadly experienced holiday stressors may be compounded and enhanced within the sector, and that recognizing when stress is becoming overwhelming is important.

Telltale Signs You or a Colleague May be Experiencing Stress

There are many signs and they can vary from person to person. Stress can affect how we think, feel, and act. Here are some of the common signs:

  • Changes in eating/sleeping, fatigue, exhaustion;
  • Mood swings, irritability, anger, frustration, helplessness, feeling overwhelmed, crying;
  • Overreacting, blowing up;
  • Difficulty focusing and making decisions;
  • Isolation, bottling things up;
  • Avoidance, procrastination;
  • Rushing from one thing to another, racing mind;
  • Racing heart, poor circulation, weakened immunity, high blood pressure, heart attacks;
  • Losing hair, skin problems;
  • Headaches, stomach upsets, grinding teeth, muscle tension;
  • Increase in substance use or addictive behaviours (gaming, shopping, gambling, etc.).

Living a completely stress-free life is not a realistic goal, McGregor points out. “Stress is a part of life that we will all experience, but there is a fine line between the everyday stress that we can get through and stress that is challenging our ability to live our lives. If our regular coping strategies aren’t working or if we don’t know how to cope, some additional help can make a difference. If we notice that our day-to-day life is being disrupted by what we are experiencing (e.g. having trouble getting out of bed, missing work, not wanting to socialize or do things we usually enjoy, increased conflict), that could mean that more help is needed.”

Help keep your holiday stress in check:

Have reasonable expectations. Just because it’s the holidays, it doesn’t mean that problems and challenges disappear. Do what you can and don’t fixate on what you can’t. Recognize that you only have so much to give and need to choose where to put your energy.

Prioritize self-care. Make sure you are getting enough sleep and keeping your eating and drinking in check. Give yourself permission to enjoy the season while striving to balance indulgence with healthy choices.

Know what matters to and is meaningful for you. Focus on what is important to you rather than giving into pressure from others to do what you don’t find fulfilling. If you find cooking a turkey is causing you stress and you don’t like it much anyway, make a different choice.

Communicate and ask for help. You don’t need to do everything yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask for others to pitch in, such as making a holiday dinner a potluck or passing the shopping list to someone else.

Build in down time. We can’t go, go, go all the time without giving our bodies and minds chances to rest and recover. Plan to take some time to relax and give yourself permission to put the to-do list aside for a bit.

Holiday stress can lead to exhaustion, stress, isolation and sadness, and it’s crucial for operators to support employees and recognize their staff’s often extraordinary efforts during the holiday period. Offering additional training on conflict de-escalation, highlighting mental health and wellness programs, incentives and supports or simply making considerate scheduling to ensure staff get enough time off during the holidays can go a long way in helping staff feel cared for. Taking the time to appreciate and reward great individual and team work can help motivate and fuel staff through demanding times and increase their ability to manage challenges and tough moments. Even with increased awareness and prioritization of mental health in recent years, holiday pressure is going to cause stress, and McGregor encourages operators, managers and anyone experiencing stress to reach out for help. “There are a number of supports that can make a difference, including counselling to help develop new coping skills. A good place to start is contacting your primary care provider, your workplace Employee Assistance Program if you have one, friends or family who may have experienced something similar, and/or your local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis or needs help, visit:

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