Fast Track: 'Tis the season to be wary

Your first Christmas in employment can be tough: you're tired and overworked. And then there's the office party.
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The Independent Culture
Christmas is fast approaching, and memories of previous festive seasons spent doing nothing but partying and sleeping for weeks can only bring a smile to your face. But as soon as the realisation sets in that Yuletide will never again remotely resemble such frivolous times, that warm glow can soon disappear. In fact, claim business psychologists, the first Christmas after leaving university can be the most shocking ever.

If you haven't yet embarked upon the career of your dreams, you'll find endless relatives asking you: why not? And if that's not enough to send you screaming into the night, you probably won't have the money to escape with drinking buddies. Gone are the days of being admitted to the pound- a-pint student union and, quite possibly, gone are your friends, off to pastures new.

But even if you have a job, it's unlikely to be a smooth ride. The seasonal break is getting longer - which ultimately means achieving more work in less time, to make up for it. This is no mean feat when you consider that research consistently reveals that graduates are already the hardest workers.

Angela Mitchell is facing her first Christmas in the high-pressure world of market research. December at Hauck Research International, she admits, is deeply tiring. "It's more hectic than I expected, and I didn't realise people have to be out of the office so much. So it will be good to see things at a more normal pace in January."

But, claims Ben Williams, a psychologist, there are solutions. "You may be coerced to accept extra work because you're new and inexperienced, but you must be assertive with an unreasonable boss if you're getting no home life at all." Attempt to draw up an achievement plan with your employer and make sure it's clear just how much time you can take off. In addition, make use of time-management skills, prioritising work daily and delegating where possible.

This is essential, he claims, because contrary to Angela's belief, January doesn't necessarily mark the end of it all - a fact that James Elliott knows all too well. Last Christmas was his first as a management trainee in the gift department of John Lewis. "When I joined, people kept saying to me, `Just wait for Christmas!'. But absolutely nothing can prepare you to cope with the sheer volume of customers and sales. And it doesn't stop on 24 December. Our sale begins three days later, so we have to turn the store round in 24 hours. I found myself eating my Christmas Day meal worrying whether everything was ready for the sale."

According to a recent CBI survey, sponsored by Bupa, you don't have to be in retailing for the new year to be a nightmare. After all, many graduates are simply burnt out. Absenteeism cost British business pounds 11bn in 1997, and the problem is always most acute in January. "People hang on until Christmas and are then exhausted by the New Year," says Dr Kevin Holland- Elliot, Bupa's occupational health specialist. "Graduates are more vulnerable because they are going through a great period of transition."

Colin Gill, of Psychology Solutions, believes that striking a balance between work and home is the biggest challenge for graduates, not least because they have so recently taken on the status of an adult. "At university, celebrations are over by the beginning of December, when you go home for a second Christmas," explains Mr Gill.

"Once you're working, however, the holiday doesn't start until Christmas Eve, when you're thrown together with family members you may not wish to see, and are away from your mates. But you're a mature wage-earner, so you've got to conform, no matter how pressured you are."

What's more, he says, you may be expected to fork out significant sums of money - often for the first time. "You're expected to participate in family rituals, even down to buying your mother an expensive, carefully chosen present instead of the dodgy box of soap which was acceptable when you were an impoverished student." Reminding them you're not yet a managing director may help, together with giving an early warning that you'll need to time to catch up with friends as well as doing the family thing.

Then there's that perennial minefield, the office party, to be negotiated, an area which graduates should approach with extreme caution. It can be a painful experience, admits Gill, as graduates must be seen to be having a good time, even if they'd rather not be there. "They are forced to embrace company rituals, wear silly hats, even cross dress, which can all prove to be very tricky indeed."

Dr Pauline Reeve, a chartered psychologist from Worcester, warns graduates not under any circumstances to take the easy option and get drunk. It's a mistake all too many make, she says, in a vain attempt to loosen up. Do a little people-watching instead, she suggests.

But even if the whole Christmas period seems like an endless series of potential catastrophes, it need not be all bad. In fact, it may stand you in good stead for next Christmas. James Elliott explains:

"In your first year, you are trying to impress and show how much you can do. I've learned to delegate more, and realise my limitations. I'm a department manager now, and with last year in mind, I'm treating both my team and the customers very gently."