As we head into the dark winter months where days gets progressively shorter leading to a lack of natural sunlight, some people start to experience a particular type of depression disorder known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short.
As implied by the name, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a recurring disorder that appears mainly during the autumn and winter months. For some, Seasonal Affective Disorder can be a debilitating disorder, while others can experience mild symptoms.
Either way, SAD can be a real problem for businesses during the busier winter months and may lead to lower productivity and higher absence rates.
In this article, we explore the causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder and discuss the problems it can cause in the workplace as well as looking at how employers can battle the issues that arise from it. Let’s begin.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is defined as a mental health problem characterised by seasonal patterns of recurrent depressive disorders. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) currently recommends that Seasonal Affective Disorder be treated the same as depression.
The main symptom of SAD is depression, but other mental health issues can also manifest, such as anxiety.
In the UK, studies have reported that up to 6% of the population is affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder on a yearly basis.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder remains largely unknown, however, there are a few possible explanations which include:
Where You Live
Seasonal Affective Disorder occurs primarily due to a lack of natural sunlight during the winter. As such, it is often more common among people who live either far north or south of the equator. This is typically due to decreased natural sunlight in the winter months.
Misalignment of our Circadian Rhythm
A lack of natural sunlight during the winter has been shown to affect our circadian rhythm – our bodies natural 24-hour internal clock which responds to changes in light and darkness. As each day gets shorter and we get less and less natural sunlight, our circadian rhythm becomes delayed with respect to the time of day and our normal sleep and wake cycles. Studies have shown that the more misaligned our circadian rhythm is, the higher the severity of Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms observed.
A Drop in Your Serotonin and Melatonin Levels
Serotonin is a brain chemical which plays a part in regulating our mood. If there’s a drop in serotonin levels, this may lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms. This is similar with melatonin, a hormone that our brain produces in response to darkness and helps regulate our circadian rhythm.
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are varied and include:
- Prolonged low mood
- Low energy
- Difficulty focusing on tasks
- Overeating, craving carbohydrates, gaining weight
- Loss of energy
- Withdrawal from social situations
The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder can often vary significantly from one person to the next. Some individuals can experience debilitating, severe symptoms, while others may see mild problems often described as the winter blues.
How can SAD affect the workplace?
Those who suffer from SAD may experience a variety of mental health symptoms that can affect their ability to work. These include:
- Lethargy. This can lead to low productivity and lessened motivation.
- Difficulty waking up in morning. This can lead to poor timekeeping and higher absence rates.
- Decreased energy levels. As with lethargy, this can lead to low productivity and lessened motivation.
- Lower concentration levels. Not only can this lead to lower productivity but it may also lead to safety issues within the workplace.
Is SAD Really Something an Employer Should Be Bothered With?
SAD is a major depressive disorder, and while it’s the responsibility of employees to seek treatment, a good employer can take steps to become sensitive to the issue and make affected employees more comfortable during this time. If concern for employee wellness is not enough of an incentive, it may be useful to remember the correlation between productivity and happiness.
How Can an Employer Help Their Employees With SAD?
There are a number of ways that an employer can help their employees with seasonal affective disorder. These include:
Encourage Breaks and Getting Outdoors
During dark winter months, getting outside during daylight hours gets harder for everyone. Suggesting outdoor lunch breaks, a mid-afternoon stroll to get a coffee or even a short outdoor meeting to chat about projects will all increase employees’ exposure to valuable, natural light.
Offer Flexible Hours
This may be easier for some workplaces than others, but where it is possible offering flexible working hours could help in a number of ways. Employees will have more time to get outside when there is natural light available, and it may give them the opportunity to go to counseling sessions that can help deal with the symptoms of SAD.
Increase Natural/Bright Light in The Workplace
Natural light can be hard to come by in some offices but is vital for combatting the symptoms of SAD. For many workplaces it may be worth trying to increase access to natural light for all staff or, if this isn’t possible, moving SAD sufferers to a space that benefits from natural light may be an option.
Provide Healthy Eating Options
As increased appetite and weight gain are associated with SAD, consider offering healthy alternatives in vending machines and workplace canteens. You don’t have to declare war on sugar and caffeine, but offering alternatives gives your employees the opportunity to make healthy choices.
What does the law state about SAD in the workplace?
While there are no specific laws in relation to Seasonal Affective Disorder in the workplace, employees are protected by all the usual laws relating to absences, illnesses, and disabilities.
Employers are obliged to treat staff suffering from mental health issues (including SAD) fairly and with compassion. They may be required to take reasonable measures to ensure that the needs of SAD sufferers are addressed as well as accepting higher absence rates if necessary.
Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder in the workplace can be a tricky thing. Making sure that employee needs are met while the business keeps running is a balancing act.
We hope you enjoyed our guide. For more workplace information, have a look around the rest of our website.
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