Working on the holidays? Staffers from diverse fields share stories

Christmas Craft Fair Photo Illustration

Grass Valley Country Christmas Faire, California, as seen on Nov. 24, 2017.

By Patricia Bouweraerts

When working on the afternoon or evening of a holiday, it sometimes seems that the sum of all your friends and extended family do not have to clock in … only you.

More than 25 percent of Americans have worked on one of the November or December holidays in the past few years according to public and private surveys. Staffers from a varied set of occupations say they find unique ways to make the best of it — still enjoying the occasion, celebrating in a nontraditional fashion, or perhaps finding a sparkle of meaning during the time away from home.

Interesting data gathered from studies reveals how many are working these special occasions, and what occupations are on the front lines of holiday work.

Staffers who work on these special days share here some practical, at times appreciative and heartfelt stories from their experiences.

A nurse’s holiday story

Sickness doesn’t know that it’s Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, or another cherished celebration.

Kathy Quan, Registered Nurse (RN) and Public Health Nurse (PHN), started out early on a Christmas morning years ago to complete her five hours of home visits swiftly so that her patients could celebrate their holiday, and she could get home to her husband and children who were waiting to open presents.

Her third patient for the day didn’t answer the phone. The door was unlocked.

“I found him on the floor next to his bed,” Quan said. “The phone was a landline and the cord didn’t stretch because it fell off the bed with him and was all tangled. He was confused and couldn’t tell me if he was hurt or not. He couldn’t get up even with my help. He insisted his mother was at work and I could call her and she’d come.”

The patient’s mother was employed in a profession that typically takes a winter holiday and she was sure that mom would not be at the workplace on Christmas Day.

“But he couldn’t and wouldn’t fathom what I was telling him,” she added.

Quan called 911. Paramedics and firefighters came to assist her, and they determined that the patient may have hurt his hip or leg in the fall. He refused to go to the hospital, though, and the impromptu health care team could not leave him on the floor, or even worse, alone. After about an hour, he gave her the contact information for his uncle who lived in another state.

“So the fire captain anxiously called the uncle and he was able to convince my patient he had to go to the hospital and get his leg checked out,” Quan continued. “The paramedics quickly placed him on a gurney and rushed him out of the house before he could change his mind.”

In the meantime, she phoned her supervisor on call, hoping that her other patients could be reassigned. No one else was available, so Quan spent the next almost three hours visiting with them. All told, a nine-hour day with no break except the time in transit.

She will always remember that day, not because of the long hours, but because of her patient. It was going to be his last Christmas. He was dying of cancer.

“I made a difference for him that day; maybe not what he had in mind, but his leg healed and he lived a few more months without added pain and discomfort,” Quan said.

Grocery staffer makes the most of his time

Retailers and grocers have been scheduling longer holiday hours than in the past.

“When I worked at a grocery store in the produce department I would be working on every major holiday except Christmas, the only day we were closed; and to deal with the stress I would do a few things,” said Julian Emme, now a student at the University of Nevada, Reno. “One is I would shop for last-minute items for my family on breaks so they wouldn’t have to go to the store any more than they had to, and I could do minimal work helping with large holiday meals while still looking like the hero for bringing the forgotten French’s fried onions or bottle of wine.”

He focused on the present and being with colleagues.

“Another thing that would help is the sense of camaraderie I shared with my fellow co-workers,” Emme said. “We were all in the same boat and it kind of sucked, but after the shift was over we could go home to our families and relax.”

Thoughts from tourism and sales

Jennifer Solomon is a hospitality and tourism industry professional who lives in California. She doesn’t view extra work projects at holiday time as negative in any way, instead she appreciates the seasonal visitors.

“Because I’ve lived in tourist destinations for the past 16 years, working around the holidays is the community’s time to make most of our money,” she said. “It’s how we’re able to make this special place — that people come to visit from all over — our home. Without the visitors, we wouldn’t be able to afford the amazing lifestyle that we have here.”

John Murphy, a sales manager at a large media company in Reno said that holiday work is an integral part of his field, as well.

“Yes, in my experience, sales and sales management professionals tend to work all the time, including holidays,” he said. “Since their compensation is tied directly to sales, salespeople know that disconnecting for a day or a week could mean a lost sale, therefore lost income.”

He said this schedule cannot totally be avoided.

“However, I feel that it’s important to have the ability to ‘disconnect’ and reinvigorate oneself, so having a reliable backup person who’s available to handle clients in your absence is a good solution,” Murphy said.

How many have to work on a holiday?

For weekend and holiday work, people in sales and service occupations know what it’s all about.

The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics posts data in its annual American Time Use Survey (ATUS) including information on employees who need to clock in on a weekday, and those who work on weekends and holidays.

“On average, almost half of workers employed in sales and related occupations (47.5 percent) worked on weekends and holidays in 2016, the largest percentage among major occupational categories,” according to the BLS. “A large proportion of workers in service occupations (40.2 percent) also worked on an average Saturday, Sunday, and holiday, although people employed in service occupations had the lowest rate of working weekdays (69.8 percent) among major occupational categories in 2016.”

The BLS definition of service careers includes the following, said Michelle Freeman, economist with ATUS.

  • Health care support occupations
  • Protective service occupations
  • Food preparation and serving-related occupations
  • Building and grounds, cleaning, and maintenance occupations
  • Personal care and service occupations

Industry sources also present data on the number of employees working on special days. One survey is underlined in a November 2014 USA TODAY article by Hadley Malcolm, “Quarter of Americans will work over holidays.”

The industries in which staffers typically will work on a holiday — such as Thanksgiving — include utilities, law enforcement, health care, travel, freight, news, and others.

“A quarter of Americans will be required to work on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day or New Year’s Day this year, according to Allstate/National Journal’s annual Heartland Monitor poll, out this month,” Malcolm wrote. “But more, 45 percent, said there’s at least a chance they will work one of those holidays.”

Malcolm’s piece highlighted the experiences of some staffers in law enforcement, health care, and news.

Andrew Bishop, a correctional officer at a Milwaukee prison for eight years worked almost every Thanksgiving since he began the position, and Rachel Barnhart, a news anchor at a TV station in Rochester, New York went in to work most holidays since she started her career in news, Malcolm wrote.

Lynze Wardle Lenio — also in news — wrote on that when she started out, she worked as an intern at a daily newspaper.

“While all my friends were unwrapping presents and sipping eggnog by the fire, I would be formatting the weather page and — I kid you not — editing obituaries,” she wrote.

Reasons for wanting time away from work during holidays

Harris Interactive conducted a holiday work schedule survey for the Workforce Institute at Kronos, Incorporated. Although the online poll was completed in 2007, the reasons for wanting time away from work during the holidays may well be enduring.

Selfie of Article Writer with Grocery Clerk Dressed as Elf

Selfie of the writer, Patricia with a grocery staffer at Ralphs in Camarillo, California on Dec. 24, 2017. He would only identify himself as “Elf.”

There were close to 2,950 survey respondents age 18 and older, with more than 970 employed full time. Results were adjusted for age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, household income, region, and inclination to be connected online.

“The reasons for which those employed full-time typically take time off during December are not surprising,” according to Workforce Institute. “The most frequent reason cited is to spend time with family (52 percent), followed by preparing for the holidays (31 percent), and shopping (21 percent).”

Janet Barbieto, a direct sales industry mentor, launched a business in part to set her own schedule, giving primary importance to family.

“If you work in a brick and mortar store, then yes, you are going to work on holidays,” she said. “I chose to have a home-based business, so I could set my own hours and work when I wanted to, around my family’s schedule.”

Holiday shifts are scheduled differently depending on occupation

Nurses and many other staffers who work in inpatient health care facilities work on holidays — a common practice at hospitals is to require nurses to work about half of the holidays, dividing up these days based on seniority and staffers’ requests.

“Most bosses and leaders try to make things as fair as possible, and usually those who don’t celebrate a specific holiday will volunteer to work it so someone else can have it off,” Quan said. “The nursing profession is often short-staffed and that means nurses have to step up and work more than what they feel is fair.”

In law enforcement, holiday work is sometimes divided up based on regular days off. Tim Dees is a retired police officer who answered a question on the topic.

“For most cops, there isn’t really a decision on whether to work on holidays or not,” Dees wrote. “It’s more of a function of your assigned days off. If the holiday falls on your day off, you don’t work that day. Otherwise, you do.”

Officers may request a vacation day on a holiday, but typically most don’t because working these culturally special days is just part of a career in law enforcement. Strictly religious times, though, may be treated as exceptions.

“Most law enforcement agencies will make reasonable accommodations for officers who feel the need to have certain days, especially religious holidays, off,” Dees wrote. “My agency had a few Jewish officers who asked to use comp or vacation time on the high holy days like Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and so far as I know, the request was always honored. Had there been an emergency, all leave would have been cancelled and everyone who could be reached would have been recalled, but that is also one of those ‘goes with the territory’ situations.”

Bob Cooke also answered the Quora question about police work on holidays. When he served as Special Agent in Charge for the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, he was available for being called out to cover urgent situations. He is now retired.

“I was subject to call outs for about 28 years of my career,” Cooke wrote. “Over those years I was called out on many holidays to investigate major crimes. I enjoyed the days that I was paid at the premium rate. But I didn’t get to realize a ‘normal’ life until very late in my career and children were already grown up.”

Tips from fellow workers: adaptive variations

Many simply accept the idea of holiday work as the norm and make alternate plans. In addition, there are advantages to traveling off-peak, when fares are generally more affordable and the airports and highways are less crowded. If a staffer negotiates with his or her manager to schedule a couple days off after the major holiday, it will offer something to cheerfully anticipate.

Image of Skeletons in Santa Hats Driving a Double Decker Bus

Just for fun, an image of two skeletons displayed as though they are driving a double-decker bus during the holiday season, as seen at Double D’s in Asheville, North Carolina on Nov. 27, 2015. Photo by P. Bouweraerts

Lenio, in her piece agrees with the concept of an alternate travel or celebration day. She wrote that loved ones are often happy to move the celebration forward or back a day so that family members can all be there, or the holiday worker can throw their own alternate celebration.

She also suggested unplugging for the time at work.

“Looking at pictures of everyone else celebrating with their families and relaxing after a big holiday feast will only put you in a funk,” Lenio wrote. “If you have to, leave your cell phone in your car or power it off and put it in your coat pocket. Instead, when you need a break, go for a short walk or grab a snack. You’ll stay focused and positive, and you’ll avoid falling victim to that ‘poor me’ feeling that comes from looking at pictures of all your friends having fun without you.”

Lenio added that a checklist will keep a staffer focused, as well.

“Write a list of tasks you hope to accomplish during your shift and cross them off one-by-one as you complete them,” she wrote. “Not only will you feel productive, but the time is guaranteed to go by much faster than if you spend the day sending mopey ‘Happy Holiday’ texts and imagining the food you could be enjoying.”

Helpful expert suggestion: micro-progress

Tim Herrera, founding editor of Smarter Living for the New York Times agrees with the checklist approach. He suggests the technique called micro-progress to become more productive.

“The idea is this: If you just can’t motivate yourself to get started on something today, slice it up into the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time,” he wrote in a November article.

Each time a tiny unit is checked off a list, it is one step closer to the bigger goal.

“This isn’t just gimmicky so-called life-hacking: Studies have shown that you can trick your brain into increasing dopamine levels by setting and achieving, you guessed it, micro-goals,” Herrera wrote.

The season to be merry busy

Sometimes working people can become overwhelmed with the added responsibilities of attending events and finishing up seasonal projects. And this is not just on the day of the holiday, but for weeks ahead of time.

Engrid Barnett, a digital content marketer and freelance writer works with natural biorhythms to optimize her time.

“As a freelance travel writer, it’s important to honor when I’m feeling most creative, especially during the holidays when I have less time and more to do,” she said. “Although I’m not a morning person, I do my best — and easiest — writing in the morning. If I get up at 4 a.m., for example, I can have a couple of blog posts written and edited around the time my kids are just getting up. That way, I maintain my work schedule while still making time for family.”

Other tasks work better later.

“Once things wind down in the evenings, I make time to do activities that require less brain power and creativity such as sending and answering emails or doing research,” she added. “By staying in tune with my body’s natural energetic patterns, I get more done with less effort.”

Sandy Wiltzius Morris, an artist who lives in Washington, shared thoughts about a time when she was working at a community college, also taking classes there, and raising teens.

“The kids were still home, then doing Boy Scouts, and pile the holidays on top,” she said. “I always wanted to do more than I could.”

Morris found a work-around for the stress that also fit well with the rest of her family’s seasonal activities.

“We got all bundled up and took walks at night in the snow,” she said. “The squeak and crunch of our feet on cold snow, the sparkle of snow crystals, foggy breath and cold cheeks were magical. And it took very little time.”

The pleasure of giving

Mike Kitson has two jobs. He is founder of Kitson Creative, a Nevada-based marketing agency, and is also a certified yoga instructor, leading classes at Yoga Loka, in Reno. Instead of canceling his Tuesday 4 p.m. beginner flow class that happens to fall on Christmas Day this year, he rescheduled it for 8 a.m. to give students more time with family for the rest of the day.

“My present to everyone is yoga,” he said.

It appears that at the end of a special day, the important part may be making the time memorable and meaningful, more than about where you happen to be to celebrate these holiday moments.


Additional resources

The Nursing Site Blog by Kathy Quan, Registered Nurse (RN) and Public Health Nurse (PHN) has been named one of the top 20 nursing blogs of 2018

The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals,” by Ralph Ryback, M.D., Psychology Today

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