An Activity Professional’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

It is that time of year again. For many, the holiday season is full of obligations, shopping, social engagements, and completely turning everyday routine upside down. For Activity Professionals like Recreation Therapists and Activity Directors, surviving the holidays comes with double duties. Not only are there personal obligations, but the added pressures of making it a great holiday season for the participants they serve. It’s enough to have most in this profession wishing for the cold, dreary days of mid-January (at least in the upper half of the United States).

I spent the last eighteen years of my professional career working in residential facilities during the holiday season. With another one closing in, I know it is important to share some strategies for not only surviving the holidays, but actually enjoying them–at work and home. Don’t worry if you aren’t working in a residential facility, these tips will help any Activity Professional looking to make the holiday season a little brighter for their participants and themselves.

holiday joy image

Surviving the Holidays at Work

Any Activity Professional working through the holidays knows the unique challenges that come with the season. Follow these tips to add a little more sanity to the holidays:

Take a Look Back

Before you jump headlong into holiday planning and programming, take a look at the previous years to gain perspective. Since your facility or program is unique, no article or guide is going to give you all the answers. Take a few minutes to reflect on the previous holidays. Think about what worked and what you wished you could change. Ask yourself these questions and brainstorm some answers by yourself or with your staff:

  • What did the participants really love about the last holiday season?
  • How did I manage my time? How could I improve my time management?
  • What did I work really hard on that nobody seemed to notice?
  • Who were some of my go-to staff and volunteers when I needed help?
  • Where there ways to simplify my programming without losing quality?
  • Are there any facility holiday traditions that could be changed?
  • How did I feel throughout the holiday season?
  • Were there any happy surprises during the holidays?
  • Did my participants give any compliments that really stuck with me?
  • Was there any productive feedback from other staff?

By taking the time to reflect on past holidays, solutions for improving this holiday season may already be floating around in your subconscious. Once you answered these questions and added any other thoughts that came to mind, take out a new sheet of paper. Write five suggestions for surviving the holiday season. Post it in a prominent location. Don’t be afraid to amend it as new ideas come.

Plan, Prepare, and Plan Some More

Start that to-do list and get going. Procrastination is only going to cause more stress. If there is anything you could do ahead of time–like making those centerpieces for the holiday party or booking entertainment–do it. Think of the things you could finish ahead of time and cross off your long to-do list.

In addition, troubleshoot common problems and have alternatives ready. Is one of the visiting volunteer groups reliably late every year? Have an activity ready instead of standing around looking at the clock cursing yourself for believing this year the group would finally make it on time.

Sure, there will always be some unplanned drama that happens between November and January. The more you prepare for the inevitable, the easier it will be to face those challenges.

Communication is Key

Chances are you work with other disciplines to make your holiday programming a success. Good communication is essential. You may have distinct visions for how the holiday season is going to play out. Those visions are nothing more than daydreams if you don’t communicate them effectively. Be as clear as you could when discussing plans, needs, and duties for your programming. This doesn’t necessarily mean micromanaging, but it does involve letting people know exactly what is expected.

Most Activity Professionals work with other professionals with different ideals, agendas, and job duties. They may not understand the value of your work. In addition, like you, these people have the stress of the holidays, work pressures, and other issues with their everyday life. You can’t assume just because you want to throw an amazing party they will jump in ready to do whatever you please. And that’s okay. Be empathetic. Take the high ground. Communicate gratitude instead of giving an attitude. People are more likely to get onboard with your vision if you communicate with respect.

Remember, you are part of a team. Have you pitched in to help others when they were struggling? Do you only talk to dietary or maintenance when you want something? By being a day-to-day team player, you build respect with others. This respect creates a greater willingness for others to help out.

Let’s face it: there will be staff that won’t help with anything. They will sit with their arms folded in the corner while you are trying to pull off a great holiday program. Even if you have to do it with gritted teeth, thank them for being there. Remember, it is the holidays.

Perfect is an Illusion

Remember getting that perfect score on your third grade spelling test? Great. Now put that memory way to the back of your mind. Elementary school is over. This is adult life. Surviving the holidays means realizing they are not going to be perfect. And that’s okay. Some of the most memorable times come from a plan gone wrong or spontaneous adaptations. This doesn’t mean being sloppy with your planning. Just remember: imperfection is part of the human experience. Embrace it and…

Pick Your Battles

You scoured Pinterest or the internet for the most amazing holiday decoration ideas. You gave the materials and instructions to an assistant or volunteer. When you see the end result, you wonder if you gave them instructions for a completely different project. Let it go. If it is something very important to you, it may be difficult. Ask yourself is it really necessary that this decoration, activity, etc., goes exactly as planned.


Whenever possible, simplify your holiday planning without sacrificing quality. Is it necessary to have ten types of Christmas cookies out? What is going to happen with the intricate party favors you worked so hard on right after the event is done? This doesn’t mean be lazy, just take stock in what is really important for your participants’ holidays and hone in on that. Don’t forget to look back to your reflections from past holiday seasons.

Take Notes to Make Next Year Even Better

As you get through the holiday season, write down what worked and what didn’t. Troubleshoot issues and make a plan for next year. Put any ideas to paper or on a computer file. Make sure it is easily accessible for next year. You will thank yourself next November.

holiday candy

Surviving the Holidays at Home

You may be putting in extra hours while those around you are enjoying time off. Others take joy in decorating their homes for the holidays. You just decorated the whole unit and don’t even want to think of going home to pull out your boxes of decorations. This time of year, Activity Professionals have unique stressors, but they need to enjoy the holidays, too.

Self-care is more important than ever during the holidays. Here are a couple ideas to help make YOUR holiday season a little brighter.

Enjoy, Don’t Indulge

The stress of managing your time while completing your routine work duties and making the holidays special for your participants is not easy. Furthermore, Activity Professionals probably attend more holiday parties and events than the usual person. With all the sweets and goodies around, a little emotional eating can throw your regular diet into a downward spiral. Enjoy these goodies, but try not to indulge.  Be mindful of what you eat and drink.

Sneak in Some Physical Activity

If you do find yourself having one too many holiday treats, do something active to offset it. Instead of watching The Christmas Story for the third time this year, take a walk around the block and enjoy your neighbors’ holiday decorations. You will feel better and New Year’s resolutions won’t seem so daunting.

Vent with Good Intentions

A good venting session may be necessary for surviving the holidays. Find a trusted friend and let it out. Purge those negative emotions, but don’t stop there. Let your venting session become a chance to find solutions. By focusing on overcoming the stressors of the holiday season, you don’t get absorbed with negativity. Journaling is another great way to let out your feelings and brainstorm ways to make your situation better. If you’re having a bad day, take out your frustrations on a pencil and paper. It may be the cathartic activity you need to refocus on what’s important.

Take Some Time Out for You

Being a caregiver is difficult work. Often our needs fall to the wayside as we work so hard to make it a great holiday season for our participants and families. In the time crunch that is the holidays, don’t neglect yourself. Get a massage, listen to some music you love, get together with old friends. Remember: you deserve a great holiday season too.

Be Grateful, Even When it is Difficult

In the midst of all the stress and chaos, it is easy to lose sight of the things we most appreciate in our lives. By practicing gratitude daily, we tend focus less on what’s wrong and find joy in the pleasures of our day to day existence. Take a few minutes each day to think about the positive things that happened. Times may be stressful, but we are working, improving the lives of our participants, and hopefully enjoying holiday moments with those we love.


I hope this guide is helpful for any Activity Professional trying to keep their head above water during the holiday season. If you are having a difficult time this holiday season, please seek support from loved ones or other professionals. As Activity Professionals, we need to care for ourselves to be our best at improving the lives of our participants.

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[…] a crazy time, you’re probably following many of the holiday traditions of your agency or facility. It goes […]