How to Handle Holiday Hard Times at Work

Obstacles abound in the fragile work-life balance over the holidays.

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The Italian poet Eugenio Montale probably said it best: "Holidays have no pity." The holidays are the ultimate test of a work-life balance, especially this year. Whatever color is added by the crepe paper bows in the office lobby and regardless of the dish of candy canes on the receptionist's desk, the holidays threaten to cast a gray pall on employees. Companies are slashing payrolls and perks to cope with a shrinking economy, which means heavier workloads and plenty of fear to squelch the holiday spirit.

Here are five obstacles you may face this season at work and some of the ways you may be able to overcome them and keep your twinkling smile:

You need a flexible scheduleyour company expects overtime: Companies require the efforts of their employees now more than ever as they try to do business with cheapskate consumers and miserly banks. But workers typically need time off to visit relatives, see school plays, and fulfill various holiday duties. So how do you find a balance? Some good news: Ellen Galinsky, president and cofounder of the Families and Work Institute, says some employers believe that giving employees flexibility is a "no brainer" when morale is low and payrolls are lean. But employees often fear their careers will suffer if they embrace a more flexible schedule. Galinsky recommends that workers limit their expectations for the holidays and choose to do the things that are most important to them.

If you're interested in talking to your boss about working from home, the key to the conversation during the holidays is the same as it is year-round: You have to make the business case. Put yourself in your boss's shoes and consider what the benefits are for the company. Make sure you've got a space at home to get your projects done. "Set up a workstation at home that closely resembles your office so you've got all the tools on hand to tackle the same projects at home as you can at work," says Adam Pash of

The holiday party is canceled: Morgan Stanley did it. So did Viacom. Companies are cutting the expense of holiday celebrations to cope with a tough economy. According to a new Battalia Winston Amrop survey, 81 percent of businesses say they are celebrating this season. But that's the lowest percentage in the survey's 20-year history. It can hurt employee morale to lose a longtime holiday tradition, so leaders should take care. "If a company's going to cancel a holiday party, they need to be clear about why," says Richard Chaifetz, chairman and chief executive officer of ComPsych, an employee assistance program provider.

Remember that celebrations don't have to be big. Chaifetz notes that at his company, holiday celebrations have always been fairly conservative. Galinsky says her office tends to do potlucks and price-limited, "secret Santa" gift exchanges. If an employer cancels a fancier party, employees might step up and offer to organize something small and thrifty but morale-boosting.

You say bye-bye to the Christmas bonus: It sort of harkens back to National Lampoon ' s Christm as Vac a tion, when Clark Griswold's boss fails to pay out the hotly anticipated Christmas bonuses. When profits and sales are down, employers may slice and dice bonuses, even for strong performers. While the disappointment will sting, it's worth taking some time to be grateful for the job you've got, especially in the face of a rising unemployment rate, and think ahead to how you can improve the company's bottom line in the next year. Keep some perspective. "These are unprecedented times, with the stock market crashing, home values plummeting, credit card problems escalating, and people fearful of losing their jobs," Chaifetz says.

There's no cash for Christmas presents: Salaries aren't getting much higher, and Americans' ability to spend has been hurt by lower home values and tighter credit. This can be a real disappointment for parents who want to shop for their kids. Take comfort that you're not the only one. "Spending is going to be down because people just don't have the money, and a lot of people feel good when they buy things," Chaifetz says. "It's just a natural inclination when the holidays come to go shopping and celebrate, and that's going to be significantly muted."

Corrected on 11/06/08: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the companies that have announced holiday party cancellations. Morgan Stanley, not JP Morgan, cancelled their party.