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Supporting Employees With Seasonal Affective Disorder

The cold, dark and wet winter months are hardly pleasant for any of us. However, for people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), they can be almost unmanageable.

SAD, also known as ‘the winter blues’, affects around 2 million people in the UK, with men being twice as likely to have been diagnosed in comparison to women, but women reportedly being likelier to say they suffer from low moods in Autumn and Winter.

This is why, as an employer, it is important that you are aware of the condition and its symptoms, so that you are equipped to support any employees that might suffer during the darker months.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder is not a mere unwillingness to go out and about or perform one’s usual day-to-day activities during Autumn and Winter. In fact, it is a recognized form of depression. Some of its symptoms include:

  • Low mood
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypersomnia (sleeping long hours)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight as a result
  • Feelings of sadness, guilt, and worthlessness

Brown haired woman sitting in bed appearing depressed

The depressive episode recurs annually and at approximately the same time each year, usually lasting for several months and followed by a period of recovery. Typically, the condition occurs over the late fall and winter months, although in some rare cases, SAD can be experienced over spring and summer, too.

What Causes SAD?

There is still debate as to what exactly causes the condition. It is possible that there could be multiple reasons behind it.

It is believed one of the potential factors that trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder is related to the amount of melatonin produced by the pineal gland in the brain. During dark hours, melatonin is released to signal the body it’s time to sleep, making us drowsy. Since daylight hours are reduced during winter due to the sun setting earlier and rising later, more melatonin is produced in the brain, resulting in the impacted person feeling sleepy and lethargic.

Low Vitamin D levels are also thought to play a role in the occurrence of SAD since Vitamin D is produced in our bodies in the presence of sunlight and is crucial for the production of serotonin. During winter, people receive significantly less exposure to sunlight in comparison to the rest of the year, which could lead to a potential Vitamin D deficiency.

Another factor that could potentially trigger SAD is how well our bodies adjust to seasonal changes. Circadian rhythms- our bodies’ biological clocks that control our waking and sleeping- are influenced by melatonin and serotonin. Since individuals who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder have altered levels of melatonin and serotonin during winter, their circadian rhythms are unable to adjust to the changes in light vs. dark hours. Researchers theorise that this is what causes the major depressive episode that is SAD.

Graphic illustrating circadian rhythm

What Does This Mean for Your Business?

Since SAD is very common, chances are that at least one of your employees (or more) suffers from it. If they struggle to manage it, it could result in their declining mental health preventing them from performing their day-to-day responsibilities. This means you would potentially be facing a higher absence rate and lower productivity levels.

Depressive episodes are also likely to affect the impacted individual’s immune system, leading to increased physical health issues, which would also cause productivity levels to suffer.

Higher absence rates also mean that the rest of the employees would need to pick up the workload of those who are unwell, resulting in higher levels of stress and negativity among your workers.

Frustrated employee covering eyes with hands while two other employees look at him, whispering to each other

How Can You Support Your Employees With SAD?

Creating a Culture of Openness

In order to support employees who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (or any mental health condition), you must create a workplace culture that supports staff to be open about their mental health. This can be done by simply communicating to them that any potential mental health issues will be treated the same way in which physical ones would.

Maximising Natural Light

Increasing the flow of natural daylight is a great way to support all of your employees, but especially those who might suffer from SAD. Even if your workplace building was not designed to prioritise this, you can take various steps towards improving the amount of sunlight that flows inside. Opening the blinds and ensuring the windows are clean are both good ways to do this, as well as removing any obstacles that might obstruct the flow of light. You could also offer the window seats to known Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers and encourage employees to spend part of their workday outside, in natural light.

Providing Flexibility

Female employee working from home

Flexible work is reported to improve mental health, productivity, and overall employee wellbeing. Altering an SAD-impacted employee’s working hours so that they can spend more time in daylight could be one way to do this, as well as offering them the opportunity to work from home for a period of time so that they can improve their work-life balance.

Offering Mental Health Resources

Ensuring that mental health support is available to your employees is vital for managing SAD. A good way to do this is by starting a mental health first aider scheme, for example. This means your staff will be able to talk to a peer, someone who is not their line manager, which might help them feel more comfortable to share their thoughts.

Introducing an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is also a great way to provide your workforce with mental health support. EAPs can be a great way to help employees overcome mental health issues that could be adversely impacting their performance, including Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Young male having a conversation with therapist

Regardless of which strategy you decide to implement, one thing is clear: being prepared to support employees struggling with mental health is even more significant as the winter months are approaching.

If you are looking for an effective and comprehensive way to manage your workers’ mental wellbeing, click here to learn about Healthscreen’s Employee Assistance Programme. We have experience in a robust range of areas, including stress management, depression, anxiety, and sleeping problems. Contact us today to receive a free, no obligation quote!

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