Festive stress: A research software engineer’s perspective

Posted by j.laird on 16 December 2021 - 10:00am
Santa heading off for a summer dip at the beach
Photo by Lynda Hinton on Unsplash

By SSI Fellow Dave Horsfall.

Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. With many workplaces seeing an increase in work and end-of-year deadlines, the run up to Christmas can also be stressful. Throughout the festive period we’re expected to spend more, socialise more, and also maintain the same work output too. At the end of a very tough 2021, let’s be kind to ourselves.

Whether you are living with a mental illness or not, the festive period can be a difficult and stressful time. It might be the financial strain that accompanies gift buying, the cold and dark winter nights, or the reality of spending Christmas alone. There can be a number of triggers for mental health problems in the run up to Christmas.

It isn’t something that I’ve given a great deal of thought about before. Christmas has always been an extremely busy time but I’ve always just got on with it, finding myself dumped out of the festive period into January. I have two very young children who have just reached the age of peak-Christmas excitement. This year, I’ve found myself reflecting on how I can manage things better for their benefit, and I wanted to share a few thoughts on managing stress in the workplace as we approach the festive season.

Hit the brakes on your festive workload

As a research software engineer, the nature of my work doesn’t really change in the run up to Christmas — at least not like other industries might, such as retail. In many ways, this is why it is really important to recognize and change our behaviour as soon as we hit December. It is easy to just continue as normal right up until you leave work. If you want to have any down time, you have to hit the brakes in early December. In order to differentiate between the tasks that absolutely need to be done now, and those that can wait until after the break, sit down and spend some time prioritising your work. Set those meetings in January, and be proactive and vocal about why. It takes a real Scrooge to insist on an unwanted meeting in the last week or two before Christmas. In almost all circumstances, it is absolutely fine to suggest any new meetings or projects start in the new year, giving you an opportunity to slow down and clear your calendar. This in turn will give you time and space, ideally to relax, but maybe to tie off tasks that have been on your list for a while. I’ve made a significant effort to follow this advice, and have definitely felt the benefits.

“Clearing the decks” is impossible

Each year I’ve constantly applied pressure to achieve the impossible: “wrapping things up for Christmas time”. As a software engineer there is always going to be an issue to resolve, a pull request to review, a design document to write. Projects don’t end on 24th December. Regardless of how hard you work before Christmas, your workload will be exactly the same when you sit down back at your desk in the first week on January — so stop trying to “clear the decks”. Instead, factor in the time away from your desk into your plans, and accept that other people also want to slow down too. Christmas can be an ideal time to step down the intensity of your work.

Be realistic with your expectations

We all have our own standards and expectations. When it comes to something like Christmas, we’re sold a perfect winter wonderland each year. We all want to do our best at work and by our friends and family, but if you try to be a superhero you’ll end up being your worst enemy. Set a limit for your expectations. In the run up to Christmas, have a look at your schedule both at work and at home. Think what is actually achievable during that time frame. Start saying no to things you won’t be able to achieve, and try to be realistic about your plans. What does “perfect” even mean? Don’t get caught up with what the Christmas season is supposed to be like and how you’re supposed to feel. Focus on making moments of enjoyment for both yourself and others.

Don’t look back in anger

Let’s face it, 2021 has been shit. 2020 was even naffer, so don’t look back. Christmas falls at the end of the year, and people tend to reflect on what they have achieved, and (especially in this time of COVID-19) what they haven’t. If you’re suffering with depression or low self-esteem, there is a real risk that any negative feelings of under-achievement, or the past year not living up to your expectations, are exacerbated.

Instead, focus on the positives (there are some, I promise) and be kind to yourself. Maybe take this opportunity to set goals you want to achieve in 2022.

Show yourself some kindness

If you’re doing your best, that’s all you can do. We need to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion and be aware of when we are unduly self-critical. We often think this inner critic is our authentic self talking. But if it’s hurtful, negative or producing anxiety then it isn’t the real us. Think about how you speak to the people you love and care about, and then turn that voice on yourself.

Do something fun

I have two young children, and like many parents we found the COVID-19 lockdowns unspeakably difficult. Balancing childcare with both parents working from home at the same time is simply not possible, and trying to explain to a 4 year old why daddy is more interested in the Zoom meeting is even more heart wrenchingly difficult. Having emerged from lockdown I found myself with several bad habits which I’ve struggled to shake off.

In the run up to this Christmas period, I’ve really tried to throw all my attention into fun activities (especially with my kids) and giving myself permission to have fun. Your circumstances may of course be different to mine, but I think the principle still applies. Taking some time for yourself can seem counterproductive when you already hardly have any time to spare, but it’s important to remember what brings you joy. Forget about all the items left on your to-do list, and give yourself time to do something fun.

Talk about how you’re feeling

It’s all too easy to hibernate when you’re feeling stressed or worried but sharing those feelings with someone else is a great way to alleviate some pressure and reassess the problem you’re facing. Christmas is a time of giving and sharing, and this applies to our problems too. I’d much rather help a friend feel better, than receive a gift from them. It’s OK to talk about how we are feeling, especially in the festive season.


I considered adding a section about avoiding overindulgence. I then realised I couldn’t possibly suggest something I had no intention of following myself. After the year we’ve all had, I think an extra mince pie is OK. However, the cold winters days are a perfect opportunity to wrap up warm and get outside into the fresh air for lovely walk.

I truly hope you have a happy and safe Christmas.

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