With Thanksgiving a memory consisting of the leftover turkey still sitting in the refrigerator, the 2006 holiday season has officially started. Although life working in an emergency communications center has its ups and downs throughout the year, the holidays can be particularly stressful. Increased demands from work and family can change a magical time of year to a nightmare which makes you want to shut your eyes and wake up on January 2nd.
Although the holidays bring to mind happy family gatherings, this may not necessarily match up with experience. Increased social gatherings with family can place demands on time which often displaces other activities. Due to the scattering of families throughout the country and the world, family members often come to stay during the holidays. Even if you have the best relationship with your relatives, these visits add stress in a variety of ways, including increased household duties and the desire to adjust your regular sleep and work schedule to fit with the more a common daytime activity schedule. If you work nights and weekends, this can be particularly troubling. Often night-shifters find themselves getting off work, sleeping for a few hours, and getting up to tend to and socialize with their relatives. Maintained for several weeks, this schedule breaks down the body, increasing health risks, not to mention adding to poor work habits and depression.
Even if you don't have relatives coming from out of town to stay, a common issue during the holidays is the school break. Often emergency communications operators adjust their schedule to sleep while their children are at school, but with the little ones home for the holidays it's a perpetual weekend. Like with visiting relatives, the added care, supervision, and noise associated with kids being home often distorts your sleep schedule, especially if you are trying to share with them all the holiday shopping and events of the season.
While already facing an unusual work schedule, the added holiday programs, parties, and cooking and shopping responsibilities of the holidays can make this time of year a juggling act where everything is precariously close to hitting the ground. Unfortunately, when an increase in the demand on our time is present, and because work is definitely not an option in the cutting department, stress-busting activities such as exercise, good eating habits, and sleep are the first to be removed from our list of things to do.
One of the most stressful holiday issues, and one which often follows us for the next 12 months just to start again, is the demand on our finances. Buying gifts, traveling, entertaining, and other added costs associated with this time of year often cause us to spend more than we can afford. Not having a budget and unreasonable expectations of perfection increases this risk. Keeping a handle on the amount of money you spend will help your financial, as well as, your mental health and prevent your from having to decrease your time even more by working overtime to make ends meet.
Emergency communications work can add to the stress of the holidays in many ways, including irregular, nonnegotiable schedules which keep you away from home during festivities, increased overtime due to vacations and holiday illnesses, and the holiday-related increase in calls. If you've worked in communications for a while, you are an expert in explaining how birthdays do not have to be celebrated on the actual date of birth, and how Thanksgiving can actually be held on Tuesday, and Easter on a Friday. Guilt about not being home, as well as envy over others who get to celebrate the holidays in a normal way can increase anxiety, loneliness, and depression if not recognized. The increased number of employees on vacation and holiday-induced illnesses strain mandatory staffing schedules even more, often causing people to work more during the holidays. Although this can help with financial stress, it adds to the frustration working for a 24/7/365 operation causes. The increase of holiday-related calls and their predominate family-conflict disposition often leads to holiday dissatisfaction and sadness. Even if there is conflict within your family, the alcohol and drug-induced physical violence of holiday calls can aggravate your separation from family even more.
Although all these issues may make you want to bypass the holidays this year, there are many coping strategies to help you get through without causing you to quit your job or spend the next month experiencing life in a yurt high in the Andes. The general tips recommended by Pamela Kulbarsh in Holiday Blues: Coping with the Humbugs are excellent. Also, strategies embracing the uniqueness of the emergency communications community can make working through the holidays a fabulous experience. For example:
- Coordinate a gift drive for needy children in the community
- Gather blankets, food, and other items to donate to the local animal shelter
- Decorate the center, including decorations made by employees during downtime
- Adopt a local family and provide gifts, dinner, and decorations
- Send holiday cards to families of law enforcement personnel who died in the line of duty
- Send holiday cards to other agencies you work with
- Have a bake sale and donate proceeds to charity
The holidays can be a joyous time, but also can spiral out of control, harming your relationships both at work and with family, your health, and your finances. During this time of year, try to keep sight of what is important to you and release the rest. You are not required to uphold some traditional Kinkadian holiday experience. Being an emergency communications operator, although adding to the stress of the season, should help you keep things in perspective. When faced with the realities of how bad things can be, it is easier to be appreciative of the things we have, including the ability to surround ourselves with friends and family (even if that means in the communication break room), a warm holiday meal (regardless of whether it is two days after Thanksgiving, starting at 9 P.M.), and the ability to personalize the holidays. In her article, Coping with Holiday Stress, Dorothy Cantor, Psy.D, former president of the American Psychological Association, recommends everyone "take stock of your expectations and make sure they're realistic. Don't expect more of this time of year than of any other." If you find yourself unable to cope, remember there are resources which can help, including talking to a peer counselor if available. With these strategies in mind, have a healthy and happy holiday season.