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The Holiday Hustle: How Stressed-Out Retail Workers Find Balance

Aaron Guerrero

From inconsistent hours to customers displaying anything but holiday spirit, working in the retail industry this time of year can be trying--both personally and professionally.

To avoid a meltdown, recognize the points of stress and confront them with leveled thinking and outside sources.

The tryout period. For many seasonal hires, the hope is that by shining on the job for two or three months, employment will last long after the Christmas décor and New Year's party hats have been stocked away.

But when January rolls around, seasonal employees may not get that full-time position or may see their hours cut back, leaving them with a paycheck hardly sufficient to cover the next month's rent. "New workers ... are eager to get to apply for these new jobs in the hopes that they're going to get 30 to 40 hours a week for the next two or three months, and if you really, really work your butt off that you will be kept on by the company afterwards," says Yana Walton, communications director for the New York-based labor group Retail Action Project. "But yet there's no guarantee."

Scheduling stress. "Holiday hours are the new bonus," Walton says of the competitive crunch among workers to pick up hours. Like the holidays they represent, extra hours may only come once a year.

Scratching and clawing for every extra hour is only half the battle, though. The "open availability" schedule many employees have during the holidays leaves them in a constant state of unknown, in which managers have the power to change their shifts at the click of a mouse. The end result: canceled or unknown scheduled hours, long shifts, and a paycheck with no consistent bottom line.

[Read: 7 Tips for Conquering Work Stress.]

Bintou Kamara, a cashier at Abercrombie & Fitch in New York City and a member of the Retail Action Project (RAP), began working at the clothing outlet during the holidays last year. Like other employees, her schedule was full during the holiday spending boom. But after the holidays, Kamara went from a six-day, 35 hour-a-week employee to a two-day, 10-hour-a-week employee. Kamara says. She later picked up a side job as a home health aide.

Working with RAP, Kamara spearheaded a petition last fall to end on-call hours, a practice she feels shortchanges employees. "It does affect your paycheck a lot of the time, you don't know how much you're going to work during the week," she says. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. did not respond to repeated calls for comments.

[Read: Using a Seasonal Job to Leverage a Full-Time Role.]

When customers become a chore. Aside from fear of a lightened schedule or ambiguity surrounding employment status, seasonal employees must also grapple with "increased customer traffic and [pressure] to provide the level of customer service that's expected to all of the stressed-out customers," says Walton.

Hours of catering to unappreciative, if not outright rude, customers can take a toll on both seasoned veterans and seasonal hires alike. Here are some tips for how retail employees can reduce the stress that's bound to come this holiday season:

1. Seasonal hires should lower expectations. "Seasonal hire" isn't an accidental name. Those hired under that circumstance should have reasonable expectations about both their hours and their odds of being kept on. "I assume most people [know] there's a high probability they might not get work," says Richard A. Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of ComPsych, a worldwide provider of employee assistance programs.

That doesn't mean you should turn in a subpar performance or decline available shifts. While you may not come away with a permanent position, the payoff may be getting one or two solid references that could land you a job down the road. "It always makes sense to do the best you can because it will help you in the long term," says Chaifetz.

2. Start a positive habit. RedBrick Health Corp., a Minnesota-based health technology company that specializes in developing wellness programs for employers, has created a behavior change system called Journeys. Combining Web and mobile technology along with live interaction, employees can take on a tailor-made wellness habit, like choosing a new attitude or making time for play. Within the "choosing a new attitude" Journey, thoughts about hope, faith, love, and humor can perk up your spirit when you need it most. Individuals then rate the experience and can use channels like email to reinforce the behavior on a daily basis.

"Patterns of behavior only change if I make it simple enough to do it," says Eric Zimmerman, chief marketing officer for RedBrick Health. So the next time a series of irate customers or a reduction in hours puts a damper on your mood, try Journey's "new attitude" technique to alleviate whatever stress you may be feeling at the moment.

3. Take advantage of what employers offer. The dream of your employer taking away on-call shifts or providing every work hour you need is, well, just a dream.

Still, some employers offer programs that can help with shorter-term issues, like in-the-moment anxiety, and longer-term ones that address financial or familial struggles. "Being healthy is great ... but you have to teach people coping mechanisms," says Chaifetz, explaining that employees facing longer-term struggles need more sustained care.

[Read: 7 Reasons to Take Advantage of Employee Healthcare Benefits.]

Partnering with thousands of employers nationwide, ComPsych offers employees services including counseling, wellness programs, and work-life services. It also offers the FinancialConnect program, in which employees can meet with in-house certified public accountants and certified financial planners to discuss topics ranging from personal debt to budgeting.

The aim of such programs is to limit off-the-job distractions that may effect an employee's work performance. "They remain more productive and have better performance on the job," adds Chaifetz, noting the benefits these services can have on employee performance.

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