November 6, 2019

How to Support Staff with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

The leaves are turning, the temperature is dropping, and the daylight hours are dwindling. Have you considered how the time of year can affect your employees’ wellbeing and mental health?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects one-in-15 people in the UK between the months of September to April, according to the NHSIt’s a type of depression that typically arises during the winter months. Symptoms include a persistent low mood, irritability and fatigue.

The science of SAD

The exact cause of SAD isn’t fully understood. It’s thought to be caused by reduced exposure to sunlight during autumn and winter.

A lack of sunlight stops part of the brain working properly which may affect:

  • Production of melatonin: melatonin is the hormone that controls our sleep and wake cycles. People with SAD may produce higher levels of melatonin than normal, making them feel lethargic or down.
  • Production of serotonin: serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep. It’s our feel-good brain chemical that makes us feel energetic. Insufficient levels of sunlight during the winter months can lead to lower serotonin levels which is linked to feelings of depression.
  • Circadian rhythms (body’s internal clock): the reason light is so important is that it sets our circadian rhythm which regulates our body clock. A lack of light during the winter can throw off your circadian rhythm and lead to symptoms of SAD.

How do I know if someone is suffering from SAD?

Raise awareness of the condition and train managers to spot the signs that include:

  • Concentration problems: have you noticed an employee who is normally very focused jumping from one task to another? Or maybe he/she isn’t concentrating in meetings or is constantly getting up from their desk?
  • Comfort eating: this can be quite difficult to spot. In the lead-up to Christmas who doesn’t dive into the chocolates and mince pies to beat the 3pm slump? However, if an employee who doesn’t usually eat at their desk is now snacking regularly, this could be a sign.
  • Lack of energy: watch out for employees who are struggling to complete everyday tasks that they can normally do with their eyes closed. This can be anything from taking much longer to respond to emails, making simple mistakes or being late for or missing meetings.
  • Mood changes: this could be someone who shows difficult or destructive behaviour during the winter months but are normally extremely cheerful and helpful.

How can I support staff with SAD?

Make the most of daylight hours

If you can, consider adjusting working hours during the winter months. Could employees start work at 7am and finish at 3pm?

You can also encourage employees to maximise their exposure to daylight hours by going for a walk during their lunch break. Physical activity is important for those suffering from SAD and regular exercise is proven to reduce stress, improve self-esteem and relieve depressive tendencies.

In addition, consider holding meetings in areas where there is natural light. Or arrange team activities outdoors to benefit not only those suffering with SAD, but all employees.

Look at your working environment

A recent poll conducted by Aspect found that 83% of UK adults consider their workplace to be ‘unpleasant’. One of the main culprits was lighting.

Does your work space have solid partitions that could be removed during the winter months to provide more natural light? You could also consider installing light therapy units (SAD lamps). The lamps emit white light emulating the sun’s spectrum of wavelengths.

Employee Assistance Programmes

Do you have an Employee Assistance Programme? If you don’t – would you consider one? As an employer, you have a duty of care to support the health of your employees. And that includes mental health. Providing an EAP service is a great way to help your employees who need confidential advice.

Recognising the symptoms and making some practical changes could reduce the number of employees who are absent from work due to symptoms of SAD

Research by the Time for Change movement found that that mental ill-health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK. It costs an average of £1,035 per employee per year.

Statistics also show that if you intervene early, you can reduce the length of a mental health related absence by almost 20%.

By understanding SAD and making some of the changes mentioned above, there’s a possibility that you may be able to prevent your employees who suffer from SAD needing to take time off work. Surely, it’s worth giving it a try? You have a lot to gain in terms of employee engagement, productivity and morale.

Join our webinar on managing SAD in the workplace

You can join our free webinar to find out more about how you can support employees who suffer from SAD. Hosted by our HR Services & Technology Director Michelle Hobson, the webinar will also look at tools and techniques for monitoring and preventing employee sickness absence and the business benefits you can expect.

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About the author

Elaine Pritchard

Elaine has a wealth of knowledge in producing contracts, training materials and other documentation as well as training other consultants. She piloted a scheme whereby she went on-site to act as a client’s HR Manager two days per week, whilst the post-holder was on maternity leave. Elaine also previously ran her own retail business for seven years, employing four people. Elaine is a field based consultant for Moorepay and provides on-site HR and Employment Law advice, consultancy and training services to our clients.