Many Americans agree that the holidays can be difficult.

Experts say that working on New Year’s Day, Hanukkah or Thanksgiving can cause mental problems. 

These holidays will see millions of Americans working. A 2014 poll conducted by Allstate and the National Journal estimated that a quarter of the U.S. population was scheduled to work on at least one of Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Day.

On top of any winter stress that someone may already feel, the negative thoughts brought on by working on a holiday can put a damper on what’s built up as a generally happy and festive time of the year.

“There’s this certain picture you have of the holidays that is reinforced on TV and everywhere you go, that this is the time to spend with your spouse or your family or your children,” said Dr. Lata McGinn, professor of psychology at Yeshiva University and co-founder of Cognitive and Behavioral Consultants.

“And if you’re not part of that … then that can bring up feelings of despair and loneliness for people.” 

The end of the year can already be a stressful time for some. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2006 study, 38% said that their stress levels increase during holidays. Only 8% said it decreases.

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For someone who enjoys celebrating the holidays, the disparity between being glued to a computer screen or stuck at a workplace while others spend time with loved ones  harkens back to a commonly studied term in economic, political and social circles.

“It’s feeling relatively deprived,” McGinn said.

Relative deprivation – the perception that a person is in a less-desirable position or receiving worse treatment than others in their situation – has been associated with feelings of anger and resentment. 

The topic has been extensively studied in the contexts of social movements. Research has sought to examine the link between relative deprivation and the various pushes for civil rights, gay rights and feminism. McGinn claims it could be used here too.

It can be difficult for someone who is buried in work to enjoy a holiday that they are trying to celebrate with their friends or family.

“You feel like everybody else is enjoying it and I’m the only one stuck here,” McGinn told USA TODAY.

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The ‘psychological agreement’

On the whole, not taking enough time off from work can contribute to larger issues of work-life imbalance and burnout, which can have mental, physical and occupational consequences. 

A 2017 peer-reviewed study found that burnout could also lead to health problems like coronary heart diseases.

So-called “workaholism” can have negative impacts on an individual’s personal life as well, says Malissa Clark, an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Georgia. She claimed that she’s done dozens of interviews of spouses of workaholics. 

Clark explained that “working all the time (even on holidays) really only has a negative effect on their relationship but also on (their] children.”

Clark says requiring certain employees – particularly those in a non-emergency field – to work on a holiday against their wishes could be considered a breach of a “psychological contract,” which she describes as an unspoken expectation between employee and employer.

According to her, the psychological contract concept, first proposed by Denise Rousseau in 1989, is based on employees’ expectation of being rewarded for their hard work through promotions, raises, and time off. She said that employees may feel less satisfied or committed to their organization if they don’t receive the rewards promised.

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However, holiday work will not be possible for everyone. It is not necessary that everyone feels sad about missing the holiday festivities.

McGinn advises that for people who work when they want to celebrate, they should first “radically accept it”.

While it is important that people create alternative ways of marking the holiday season she also says it can be counterproductive for them to resist something which may not be within their control. 

“It’s that mental battle that can create stress.” 

Follow Jay Cannon from USA TODAY Twitter: @JayTCannon.



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