Handling the Holiday Season's Time Crunch

Corporate seminars are helping workers stay serene and solvent this month amid the multiple responsibilities of home and job

When more than 100 employees of a San Francisco insurance company gather for a lunch-hour seminar on "Breezing Through the Holidays" today, many will be drawn by its optimistic title and by the hope of simplifying the busiest season of the year.

As she always does when she leads these seminars, Candace Acevedo, director of education for Consumer Credit Counseling Services, will ask participants a searching question: "What does Christmas mean to you?

Is it going out and buying tons of gifts, or giving of yourself?" Urging her audience to consider the spiritual nature of the holidays, she will offer practical solutions for remaining solvent and serene in the midst of multiple demands on budgets and time.

Ms. Acevedo's seminar is one of a small but growing number of corporate-sponsored workshops taking place across the country this month to help workers balance jobs and home responsibilities. The sessions, usually conducted by outside consultants and family specialists, reflect a growing awareness on the part of some managers that workers have commitments during the holidays that add extra pressure to their day-to-day duties.

"Employers want to support their employees, because often people who are conscientious at work are also conscientious parents and spouses who are trying to keep it all together in other areas of their lives," says Lila Steiner, marketing director at Concern, a Mountain View, Calif., program that conducts seminars. "Often the most valuable employees are struggling the most, because they're so conscientious."

In an age of downsizing, when employees may be working longer, efforts to simplify take on even greater importance.

"We're seeing more and more employees who work 12-hour shifts and must do the holidays on top of that," says Diane Mokrzycki, director of employee market services at The Partnership Group in Philadelphia.

In Acevedo's workshops, a primary focus involves keeping spending in check. "We let people know they should set limits and come up with a budget plan before they even attempt to go shopping," she says. "Don't use gift-buying to cover up feelings you might have that 'I should have done this or that during the year.' A $500 leather jacket is not going to do it."

Some topics are predictable: shopping, gift-giving, decorating, and entertaining. Many seminar leaders address the common tendency for families to set unrealistic expectations, then feel disappointed when celebrations fall short of their hopes.

One big culprit during the holidays, leaders find, is a lack of communication. "Tell your family, 'Let's talk about how you want the holidays to be and how we can all pitch in,'" says Lisa Poelle, a principal at Work and Family Focus, a consulting organization in San Jose, Calif. "Involve the kids if you can, so they can help instead of being done for. Really begin to set an example of what the season is about - sharing and caring."

Other discussions involve more-abstract issues, such as relationships. Linda Miller, a corporate trainer at Concern, offers the example of a newly married couple: "His family does it one way, her family does it another way. They're caught in the middle."

Then there's the challenge of what Ms. Miller describes as "a partner who is a bah-humbug. Women say, 'I can't get him involved, I have to do it all.' " She advises, "Get support from other people. If you can't engage your partner, then you need to buddy up with your best friend. Decorate your house and hers."

Another seasonal challenge is perfectionism - the self-imposed demand to decorate every inch of the house, cook elaborate meals, buy lavish presents. "Are the kids really going to notice that you have this incredible bow on a package?" asks Miller.

Other workshop topics are geared for specific groups, such as single parents and those in blended families, who come to a new marriage with separate traditions and different expectations.

Patty Marquis, a social worker in Lexington, Mass., who gives workshops to corporations and other groups, addresses issues facing single parents. She tells them, "What you have to do is give up the notion of what Christmas should look like, or what you imagine it looks like in other families, and respond to your own family's needs. It usually works."

For those who will be alone, she says, "The most important thing to do is to figure out what kind of soothing things they can develop that they know work for them when they're alone - perhaps a good book, a good movie. Can they call relatives, make phone contacts to lessen isolation? Can they do something for someone else - a community effort, such as helping the homeless?"

Whatever one's family configuration, Miller recommends taking "one simplifying step each year - one less meal, one less present, one less party." She asks her audiences: "Where can you simplify the season so you don't just fall into the trap of creating more and more? It's what people have come to call the 'overs' - going overboard as they overspend, overeat, overdrink, overplease others."

Acevedo warns in particular against going overboard for children. "Children reach a certain age when they're no longer appreciative of the fact that they're being inundated with all these gifts," she says. "They just know Mom and Dad can't afford this." Overbuying poses other challenges. "Parents may leave children at home every weekend while they shop," Acevedo says. "The intentions are good, but a lot of children are being ignored, except on Christmas Day."

Instead, she says, the holidays offer "a great time to sit down with your family and start some new traditions. Consider doing something together - maybe baking cookies as a family, as opposed to running out to four different shopping centers."

For her part, Miller tries to instill in audiences a central message. "It's very, very important to listen and pay attention to your own value system, and not be swept away by the onslaught of commercialism," she says. "The season ought to reflect your own personal values, and not what commercial quotas set for us."

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