Mid December 2014: Family stress at Christmas time

For some people, the Christmas period can be a time of high stress. While for many families, Christmas is a time for celebration, down-time and holidays, it is also the most likely time of the year for many people to experience anxiety and depression, particularly those who have recently divorced, have experienced a recent death in the family, or are socially isolated. People can feel increased financial pressure from the costs of buying gifts, entertaining and holidays, and there can be added strain from spending time with family members. For those people with complex family structures, Christmas time can present even greater challenges.

Previous research finds that…

Studies also show a spike in death rates around Christmas.  However, while there is a greater chance of dying on Christmas day, the day after Christmas or New Year's Day than any other single day of the year, contrary to popular belief, rates of suicide do not increase at Christmas time.  Higher death rates at Christmas are associated with disease and natural causes, with research suggesting that the higher death rates may be due to stress and loneliness exacerbating existing conditions and people being slower to seek medical treatment in the holiday period (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2010).

While preparing for Christmas may be stressful in itself, factors commonly associated with poor mental health at other times of the year are also more prevalent in the Christmas period.  These include relationship breakdown, workplace stress, and financial pressures (Hawton, 1997; NMHC, 2013).

In December 2014, Relationships Australia asked visitors to our website to participate in a two‑minute survey that asked them about their experience of stress at Christmas time.  Respondents were asked to report on a five-point scale (not at all, slightly, moderately, quite a bit, extremely) how much a selection of factors commonly associated with Christmas stress impacted on their family relationships.

Survey results

Around 850 people responded to Relationships Australia’s online survey between 1 and 18 December, 2014. Similar to the October and November online surveys, around 80 per cent of respondents identified as female, with women outnumbering men in every age group (see figure below). Around 90 per cent of survey respondents were aged between 20-59 years, with the peak response category capturing the views of women aged from 30 to 39 years.

The demographic profile of survey respondents remains consistent with our expectations of the groups of people that would be accessing the Relationships Australia website.

Around one-third of male and female survey respondents indicated that work-life balance factors ‘extremely’ negatively affected their family relationships at Christmas or affected these relationships ‘quite a bit’ (see figure below).  One-third of people responding to the monthly survey also reported that financial worries affected their family relationships ‘extremely’ or ‘quite a bit’ at Christmas, with men (37%) reporting higher negative effects on family relationships than women (34%).

When asked about the effects of increased consumption of food, drugs, alcohol or gambling on their family relationships at Christmas, 16 per cent of men and women reported that their relationships were affected ‘quite a bit’ or ‘extremely’.  Similarly, around one-sixth of women (17%) reported their family relationships were affected ‘quite a bit’ or ‘extremely’ by different expectations, beliefs or values around Christmas.  In contrast, almost one-third of men (28%) reported significant effects on their family relationships due to this factor.

Around one-fifth of men and women responding to the monthly online survey reported their family relationships were affected ‘quite a bit’ or extremely’ by issues relating to children from a previous relationships at Christmas.  Given that this question is likely to have lower relevance to all survey respondents than other questions, this result indicates a high rate of family relationship stress at Christmas for blended and/or separated families.

The largest effect on family relationships reported by men responding to the monthly online survey related to spending time with extended family, including in-laws (40%).  Around thirty per cent of women also reported that their family relationships were affected ‘quite a bit’ or ‘extremely’ due to spending time with extended family at Christmas, similar to women’s reports of work/life balance and financial issues.



References

Hawton, K. (1997) Attempted suicide. In Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: Science and Practice (eds D. Clark and C. Fairburn), pp. 285-312. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Hawton, K. (2000) Sex and suicide: Gender differences in suicidal behaviour, British Journal of Psychiatry, 177:484-485

National Mental Health Commission (NMHC), 2013: A contributing Life, the 2013 National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. Sydney:NMHC.

Phillips D1, Barker GE, Brewer KM(2010). Christmas and New Year as risk factors for death. Soc Sci Med. 2010 Oct;71(8):1463-71. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.07.024. Epub 2010 Aug 5

The Annenberg Public Policy Center.  (2010). The holiday-suicide link: The myth persists. The Annenberg Public Policy Center (producer). Accessed at <http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/Downloads/Releases/ACI/Holiday%20Suicide%20release%202010.pdf>

Relationships Australia State and Territory websites