Various winter holidays (and travel associated with celebrating them) and the end of the calendar year may cause an increase in both mental and physical health concerns, especially for private-sector personnel who may be far removed from their support system of friends and family. People in higher latitudes may feel physical or emotional effects of inclement winter weather, shorter days, and waning sunlight. Many students face mid-term examinations and end-of-semester deadlines, and other private-sector employees face deadlines involved with duties such as year-end reconciliation and tax filing requirements. Millions of people across the globe will take long-distance flights, which can increase the spread of germs that cause illness. For many, holiday festivities can also include excess consumption of food and alcohol.
While the winter holiday season can be a joyous occasion, holidays can be stressful and take a toll on both mental and physical wellbeing. The following report is a guide for OSAC constituents to help promote healthy practices during the upcoming holiday season.
Cold temperatures can cause serious health problems, especially in infants and older adults. Stay dry, and dress warmly in several layers of loose-fitting and wicking clothing. Wear appropriate gloves and footwear for any time outside. Frostbite, which is the freezing of body tissue, can occur in less than one minute in extreme climates and in extreme cases can lead to gangrene and require amputation. Hypothermia, when the body temperature falls below 95°F, is also a danger and can be difficult to detect. The number of heart attacks also rises in the winter, in some cases due to strain related to shoveling and other increased efforts due to snowfall, but in other cases due to constricting arteries that force the heart to pump harder.
In many northern locations, the sun rises and sets during working hours, so people often do not have any exposure to the sun. For example, in Tromso, Norway, the sun does not rise above the horizon between mid-November and mid-January. The ill effects brought on by the lack of natural sunlight have long been recognized; even a French treatise written in 1806 describes emotional impacts “when the cold weather of December and January set in.” While many people call a mild form of this the winter blues, it can be a type of generalized depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). While SAD is not fully understood, some countermeasures seem to help, including: antidepressant medication; light therapy (bright, artificial lights that change in color and intensity); light rooms (all-white, brightly illuminated rooms); heliostats (mounted mirrors that reflect sunlight toward a set space); providing access to direct sunlight; and even cognitive behavioral therapy (learning to adopt a positive attitude toward winter; embracing Danish hygge or Norwegian koselig).
Once stress and anxiety have set in, it can be hard to stop and regroup, but the holidays do not need to take a toll on health. Feeling emotional and nervous or having trouble sleeping and eating can all be normal reactions to stress. Emotional stress can trigger heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, chronic headaches, and other diseases from habits like smoking or excessive food or alcohol consumption.
An analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center debunked claims that linked the holiday season to a surge in suicide rates. In fact, suicides tend to occur at the lowest rate during the holiday period from mid-November through January.
Balance work, home, and play by saying ‘no’ to social events or extra work activities that cause stress. If declining a work task or obligation is not feasible, speak with a supervisor to find equity. Set clear expectations on gift giving. Stick to a reasonable budget without feeling guilty. Get support from family and friends, and seek professional help if needed. Keep a relaxed and positive outlook by acknowledging that holiday seasons may not be perfect or flawless. Find healthy enjoyable outlets for stress not involving food, alcohol, or drugs. Take short breaks, possibly through exercise, yoga, or meditation, to reduce stress. Practice gratitude, by focusing on appreciation. Get proper sleep.
Keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Wash your hands with soap and clean running water, and rub them together for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based sanitizer. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you do not have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Germ transmission tends to be problematic during winter holidays, as more people, many of whom may have weakened immune systems due to holiday stress (see above), are confined to enclosed places, like airports, and are likely to touch contaminated items or be in close physical proximity to sick travelers (see What’s Bugging Your Staff: Air-borne Diseases).
Contrary to popular culture misconceptions, the cold or fluctuating temperature itself does not cause sickness, although respiratory diseases like bronchitis and pneumonia tend to occur in colder weather due to constricted blood flow. Flu season generally kicks off around October and peaks between December and March and sickens about 10% of the U.S. population annually (25-30% in an epidemic year). (See Flu Season in the Northern Hemisphere) Flu shots should be received by early December to ensure efficacy during the holiday travel period.
As you prepare holiday meals, keep yourself and your family safe from food-related illness. Wash hands and surfaces often. Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs (including their juices) away from ready-to-eat foods and eating surfaces. Cook foods to the proper temperature. Refrigerate promptly. Do not leave perishable foods out for more than two hours.
Many of the upcoming holidays also have associated sweets and extravagant meals. One study found that half the weight gained during holidays remained until the summer months or beyond. Be mindful of healthy food choices and portions during festivities to avoid overeating. Choose fresh fruit as a substitute for candy. Limit fats, salt, and sugary foods. Be cognizant of emotion-driven hunger triggered by stress. Find fun ways to stay active for at least 2½ hours a week.
The effects of alcohol can have physical manifestations, including greater blood flow to limbs resulting in heat loss, suppressed appetite and malnutrition, and impaired judgement. Emergencies related to overconsumption of alcohol tend to spike during the winter holidays. (See Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad)
Guidance for OSAC Constituents
For each of these four concerns surrounding the winter holidays, there are mitigation strategies that employers might consider providing for their staff and recommended actions for staff to take on their own behalf. A general awareness and empathy of the possibility of heightened stress among employees can go a long way in managing added stress levels. Some of the more impactful actions for employers may be to provide or encourage prophylactic vaccinations, hand sanitizer, and other preventative transmission guidance, including appropriate winter weather attire; balancing workloads and encouraging breaks; and offering healthy food during festivities.
For Further Information
If you have additional questions regarding this report, please contact OSAC’s Health Analyst.
CDC: Holiday Health and Safety Tips
CDC: Coping with Stress
CDC: Cold Weather Travel
CDC: Be Prepared to Stay Safe and Health in Winter
CDC: Be Food Safe
CDC: Impaired Driving