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How to deal with holiday stress? Plan ahead!

Sept. 1, 2006
The holidays are such a mixed bag of emotions, from sheer joy and excitement, to the despair of missed expectations, hurt feelings, and isolation.
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The holidaysare such a mixed bag of emotions, from sheer joy and excitement, to the despair of missed expectations, hurt feelings, and isolation. It’s a crazy time of year; most everyone agrees. But if it’s such a blessed time, why is it so stressful?

The reasons are as plentiful as lights on a Christmas tree. It’s the time of year for reflection - old friends, new friends, lost loves, those who have passed on. It’s the time of year for reaching out, loving, giving, surprising, and nurturing our loved ones. It’s a time when our souls and bodies reach out to be loved, surprised, and nurtured. The “oughts,” “shoulds,” and “have tos” abound - with open houses, pageants, and parties to attend, cards to send out, gifts to buy, and a multitude of people with expectations we feel we have to meet. And all we really want to do is rest!

As if all this flurry of activity wasn’t enough, our poor psyches are burdened with holidays of the past to either live up to or make up for. Everyone around us is going through the same thing. If you’re saying “not me,” then congratulations, you’ve broken free of this craziness! Don’t forget however, that you are still part of the dynamic because those around you are likely still caught up in it.

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How does this impact our work at the dental office? You know the scenario all too well. Patients, doctors, and staff members are all struggling with their emotions, pocketbooks, energy levels, and often their own mortality. Then we add to the mix our expectations and, yes, obligations to our coworkers and employers! I experience it repeatedly when I visit dental offices during the holidays. The staff is often speculating about how much their bonuses will be and why the doctors can’t be more generous. After all, they reason, he or she just bought a new luxury car to drive or an extravagant gift for his or her significant other. “Don’t these doctors know that if it weren’t for us, they would have nothing? We work so hard all year. At least during the holidays the doctors could be generous to a fault. And I’m expected to contribute to their gifts? - help buy something for someone who has 10 times what I have? I’d rather buy for my children. I’m so broke already.”

And the doctor is saying, “Don’t they realize I pay them well all year? No matter how much I give them - and believe me, sometimes I’ve been very generous - it’s still not enough! You know, only two people came forward to say ‘thank you.’ There’s no way to please them!”

If bonuses are not an issue, then I hear the debates of what kind of party to have, with or without spouses, dressy or casual, daytime or nighttime, how much to spend on gifts for each other, and on, and on, and on.

Wait! Hold the horses! Enough already. I’m beginning to feel like Mr. Scrooge and the Grinch who stole Christmas. Nevertheless, taking the time to understand why the holidays can be stressful is the first step in getting past all the hassles and creating a wonderful few weeks for you, your family, and co-workers. So if the previous paragraphs resonate with you, contemplate on their meanings and then - deal with it. I apologize for being so blunt; however, we can never move on to create new experiences in our lives until we put to rest the disappointments of the past. It reminds me of trimming a rose bush - the results are well worth the effort of removing the dead wood.

Let me share four ideas for you to help make your spirits bright this holiday season.

Suggestion #1:

Take the surprise out of your office activities. The holidays are so full of surprises - both good and bad - in our personal lives, more surprises at work just add to the stress. Therefore, my No.1 suggestion is to plan your office holiday in the middle of the summer. Let me explain. Have an office picnic or a festive staff meeting and decide together how you would like to celebrate in November and December. Write down all of the parties or outings that you’ve done in past years that were very successful, throw in some new ideas, edit the list based on the current budget, and then vote. The majority rules!

Doctors, plan ahead with your advisors, accountant, or bookkeeper and decide now (in July, preferably) what the end-of-year bonuses will be. Don’t wait to “surprise” your staff. Tell them now so they can plan their own holiday budgets. Also, tell them exactly when they will receive this bonus, whether it will be on December 1st, 15th, or in January. I suggest delivery by December 15th. Your staff will love it! In addition to deciding the bonus and party, go a step further and determine if you will have “secret angels” or a gift exchange, and what the dollar limit will be. There’s also no reason why holiday cards can’t be addressed - in August or September! Pick a not-so-busy time and get them done.

In essence, you want the holidays to be a no-brainer for your practice. Instead of them adding to stress that already exists, let those at work support one other emotionally, spiritually, and physically through this tricky time. Plan for it and it can happen! My clients who plan their holidays in the heat of summer tell me it really works.

Suggestion #2:

Even though the holidays of 2006 are upon us (and you haven’t preplanned) take this time to be as up-front as you can - as quickly as you can - about your plans. Have everyone review this article and honestly share your expectations with one other. Agree not to be “mind readers,” but rather to be attentive to individual needs and wants. If you’d like chocolate instead of popcorn, speak up! Everyone enjoys giving a present the recipient will appreciate. This tactic is quite helpful in our personal approach to the holidays as well. Doctors, if your staff is eagerly waiting for you to tell them the amount of their holiday bonuses so they’ll know if they can pay their rent on the first, then give them the greatest gift of all - peace of mind. If it’s less than they expected, they can be more frugal with their purchases. If it’s more than expected or just what they expected, then they can worry less about their January bills.

You may think I’m a big “humbug” for taking away all the surprises, but don’t discount the idea too quickly without discussing it. Take a vote to choose how you want to handle this special but stressful season.

Suggestion #3:

Take care of yourself. Learn to meditate and relax. Take time for yourself. Reflect in a place that helps you remember all of the good times. Be clear with your family, friends, and coworkers about what you’d enjoy as gifts or goodies. Get caught up in finding out other people’s secret wants. But remember, you can’t take care of others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

Suggestion #4:

Even if all your plans are thwarted by unforeseen circumstances - an ice storm, for example - focus on the true meaning of this blessed time. Many years ago in a very contemplative moment, I wrote the following:

Perhaps the answer is that there are no answers. Just the now. Past, present, and future rolled into the human frailty I call myself. One of the many. One of the universe. Searching for meaning beyond myself.

I wish you the very best of this wonderful season.

Marsha Freeman, MA, is a nationally recognized speaker/presenter, author, dental management consultant, and SOPs specialist with more than 28 years’ experience in dentistry. She is founder and president of Freeman & Associates located in Nipomo, Calif., a company devoted to improving organization and system delivery for dental practices. Reach her at (800) 253-2544 or visit

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