LOS ANGELES — For plenty of working Americans, the holidays feel like nothing short of a marathon.
Shop for gifts, trim the tree, send out Christmas cards, plan the parties, stock the refrigerator, clean the house.
And don't forget about all those office parties.
It's next to impossible to keep your mind on your work.
Yet a handful of companies use perks to lighten the load for employees. Most such benefits help save time but some aim at relieving holiday pressure. They offer everything from an additional paid day off for shopping to catered Christmas dinners.
"Life is getting in the way right now, as people have lots of things to get done," says Barry Lawrence of the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.
"Companies already have flexible programs, but they need to make sure they're being very flexible at this time of year."
No doubt life is busy at any time of year.
A recent survey by the New York-based Families and Work Institute found that 40 percent of workers say they don't have time for family chores; another third lack time for personal needs.
But for time-pressed, two-income families, the holidays often give new meaning to the word "busy."
Crunch time for everyone
At the same time, many companies face their own time crunch. Year-end deadlines force workers to clock even longer hours.
Even the extremely organized find that getting everything done becomes next to impossible.
So a few companies are getting creative:
* At Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo., $60 lets an employee order a full-course turkey dinner for eight, complete with cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, rolls, and pumpkin pie. Simply pick it up the day before and reheat.
* Neversoft Entertainment in Woodland Hills, Calif., this month gave all its workers a day off with pay and took everyone to Universal Studios.
* At Motorola in Schaumburg, Ill., workers pay $7.50 for freshly baked pies: Everything from apple and pumpkin to banana cream and fruits of the forest.
* United Parcel Service in Atlanta gives every employee - all 350,000 of them worldwide - a free 15-pound turkey. If workers can't pick up their turkey, UPS will draw on its significant delivery capacity and drop it off at their home.
It's as much a convenience as a thank you, says spokeswoman Kristen Petrella. In a recent employee survey, UPS asked workers if they'd prefer another holiday gift. "There was such an outcry," she says.
Other firms do your shopping for you. And while using a "personal shopper" may lack the personal touch, it gets the job done and lets employees spend time with their families.
They buy it, wrap it, and mail it
BurCorp at Your Service, a Cincinnati corporate concierge company that lists Andersen Consulting and Enron Corp. among its clients, says demand for its services, including shopping, jumps 35 percent during the holidays. Among the other hot perks: wrapping and mailing gifts.
"It's the mundane things that have the biggest impact on people's lives," says BurCorp's chief executive, Dave Lima.
Other companies give workers extended time off.
Autodesk instituted something called the "Week of Rest." The California softwaremaker closes its doors from Dec. 23 through New Year's Day.
"Things aren't quite as frantic because employees know the 'Week of Rest' is sitting there," says spokeswoman Kathy Tom Engle, who uses the two days off before Christmas to finish her last-minute shopping.
The issue is control
Some experts say that what workers really want is more control of their time.
"Companies need to really look at how the ongoing system works and not think that one [extra] paid day off during the holiday season will solve somebody's stress or overwork problems," says Barney Olmstead, co-director of New Ways to Work in San Francisco. "It doesn't mean it's not appreciated."
AT&T, for example, encourages employees to work at home more often during holidays.
Currently, the company says, 29 percent of its 55,000 managers work at home once a week. That number increases 10 to 15 percent in December.
"Working at home allows someone to work out a schedule that is their own," says spokesman Burke Stinson.
"You'd be surprised how many people feel the pressure has been alleviated because they are able to tend to their holiday demands," he contends.
"We don't lose those hours, either," Stinson says. "We find people feel grateful for that freedom. Our surveys indicate that the people who work at home work an average of one hour or more [extra] a day than they do in the office."