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All I want for Christmas is… recovery

Date:17 December 2018
Author:Jessica de Bloom
"Jessica de Bloom is a Rosalind Franklin Fellow working in HRM & Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen. Photo by Rami Marjamaeki.
"Jessica de Bloom is a Rosalind Franklin Fellow working in HRM & Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen. Photo by Rami Marjamaeki.

Prevention of burnout and recovering from highly demanding jobs is important for the wellbeing of employees and crucial for firm performance. Accordingly, finding out how to reduce stress is vital from both a business and a personal perspective. Holidays may play a key role in recovery from work stress.

Alongside Prof. Christine Syrek, Dr. Oliver Weigelt, and Dr. Jana Kühnel, I took Christmas as a case study for this topic. Originally a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, it is now celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike. Ninety-five percent of Americans celebrate the holiday and it is an official holiday in all European countries as well as many countries in Asia. During the Christmas period, people’s eating, travelling, working and shopping activities are different than usual. It is also a time for rest and recuperation from the present-day intensity of working life. How is the wellbeing of employees affected during this Christmas period? Our study sought to answer this question by providing a detailed picture of employee wellbeing before, after and during Christmas. We studied the wellbeing of 145 white-collar workers, monitored twice a week for 15 weeks.

In particular, we aimed to answer the following questions: Does the Christmas holidays cast its shadows on employee’s affective wellbeing during the four weeks before Christmas? On which factors does the change in employee affective wellbeing before Christmas depend? How long do employees benefit from their vacation (that is, when have the beneficial vacation effects faded out)? Which factors during and after Christmas impact the fading out of beneficial vacation effects?

We examined these questions in the light of three factors. Firstly, we considered the role of the anticipation of the Christmas holidays on employee wellbeing before Christmas (for more research on vacation anticipation, see Nawijn, de Bloom & Geurts, 2013). Secondly, we looked at the influence of unfinished tasks both at home and at work on employee wellbeing both before and after Christmas (for more research on unfinished tasks, see Syrek & Antoni, 2014). Thirdly, we looked at the effect that relaxation and detachment (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007 & 2015) during the Christmas break had on employee wellbeing after Christmas. We conducted a comprehensive diary study covering four months in a sample of working people. The study investigated employees’ affective well-being four weeks before the Christmas holiday, during the Christmas holiday and 10 weeks after Christmas.

Positive affect increased before Christmas, reached a maximum during Christmas, and slowly decreased in January and February before increasing again in March. Negative affect followed a similar but inverted time trend. The pleasant anticipation of Christmas as associated with both the increase in positive affect and the decrease in negative affect. The results also suggest that home demands consume resources and increase employees’ negative affect before Christmas. In this way, the accumulation of unfinished personal tasks slows down the decrease in negative affect before Christmas. Demands did not influence the shape of the “holiday happiness curve” in positive affect (Nawijn et al.,2010). After Christmas when employees were back at work, the starting level of work-related unfinished tasks was related to employees’ positive affect during the next weeks, while for negative affect the accumulation of personal unfinished tasks was more important. We speculated that for positive affect, a strong contrast between the Christmas vacation and being back at work with a large amount of work tasks ahead is particularly resource threatening. Our results showed that a decrease in personal unfinished tasks relates to a slower fade-out. In other words, the fewer unfinished tasks there are, the longer the beneficial effect of Christmas will persist. While detachment during the Christmas holiday was associated with slower fade-out of positive affect after Christmas, relaxation during Christmas was found to relate to the reappearance of negative affect. These finding suggest that particularly relaxation is a powerful means to restore resources during vacation, on which employees may draw after being back at work.

Overall, our study confirmed that also Christmas holidays benefit employee well-being and that it is important to pay close attention to one’s activities and experiences in the time before and after vacation. Once more, research has demonstrated that a period of relaxation and mental disengagement from work constitutes an important source of employee well-being and happiness. So, after finishing your work and private chores by the end of this week, try to disconnect from your work, be lazy and enjoy some undisturbed quality time with your family and friends.

Have a happy holiday!

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About the author

Jessica de Bloom
Jessica de Bloom is a Rosalind Franklin Fellow working in HRM & Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen.