January 26, 2022

Managing seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the workplace

With one in 15 people in the UK affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it should be a priority when it comes to managing mental health in the workplace. Here’s how you can help staff affected by SAD as an employer.

What is SAD?

NHS defines seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. It’s sometimes known as “winter depression” because the symptoms are usually more apparent and severe during the winter between September to April, and lessen in spring and summer.

Of course many people feel a bit unmotivated and tired in the colder months. However, SAD shouldn’t be mistaken as having the odd bad day when the weather is gloomy. It’s a serious condition identified by a persistent low mood, irritability and/or fatigue that can be debilitating for those affected.

The exact cause of SAD isn’t fully understood, but it’s thought to be caused by the lack of sunlight in autumn and winter. This stops part of the brain working properly, which may affect the production of melatonin (affecting sleep), serotonin (which regulates mood and energy) and circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock).

Signs an employee may be suffering from SAD

Line managers should keep a careful watch out for symptoms of SAD that might arise when the nights draw in. This will help identify employees who may need additional support.

Signs an employee may be suffering from SAD are:

  • Increased absence in winter months. An employee might not state the real reason for why they need time off, so be on the look out for more general sickness absence in winter.
  • Concentration problems. Particularly if you notice a change in an employee from having good concentration to poor concentration, such as in tasks and meetings.
  • Lack of energy. This may affect the employee’s ability to finish tasks or complete tasks to their usual standard.
  • Comfort eating. Comfort eating is something everyone does around Christmas, but perhaps you notice someone’s food habits change significantly, such as eating at their desk or indulging in more sugary snacks to give them the energy they’re lacking due to SAD symptoms.
  • Mood changes. This might come out as someone being difficult or obstructive, or someone who’s usually bright and positive may act withdrawn or pessimistic.

The benefits of focusing on mental health

Of course, the main reason for taking measures to manage SAD in the workplace is to support your employees. But improving wellbeing also has tangible business benefits. These include:

  • Reduced staff turnover
  • Reduced sickness absence
  • Improved staff performance
  • Reduced complaints and grievances

How to support staff with SAD

Maximise daylight hours

If an employee has commuted in the dark and is working in a gloomy environment all day, this can compound the problem. Making some changes can help them get more natural light in their working day.

For example, at Moorepay we have a one-hour block-out between 12pm and 1pm for employees to  step away from their desk and get some sun in their lunch break. You could also ban people eating from their desk to encourage them to step away from work at lunch.

Flexible working such as changing their start and finish times means employees can adjust their schedule so they don’t have to travel home in the dark. These changes can also facilitate your employees to be more active, which helps alleviate symptoms of depression.

Improve the work environment

A poor work environment, such as one that’s dark, cluttered, and cramped, can negatively affect people’s mood. Is there any way to make it a more pleasant physical space to be in?

This could include having a clear out, rearranging furniture, removing partitions or having a more open-plan office space. Of course, any way to bring in more natural light will benefit those suffering from SAD. If that’s not possible, making sure your work space is well lit and perhaps installing a SAD lamp can make up for it.

Have an Employee Assistance Programme

Consider having an Employee Assistance Programme, which can support your employees’ mental health. There are a wide variety of partners who can offer this for your business (including Moorepay). It usually includes a 24/7 telephone line and online tools and resources that all employees can access for confidential wellbeing support.

Start a mental health first aider scheme

Whilst a medical first aider helps take care of someone who is injured at work alongside their usual duties, a mental health first aider is here to help for any mental health related concern. They’re someone who an employee can talk to about any mental health issue they have themselves or about a fellow colleague.

Starting a mental health first aider scheme means your employees can access peer support. Having someone to talk to who is not their line manager or direct team members can be beneficial for employees to feel they can talk freely without impacting their core work relationships. We’ve found it successful at Moorepay and our sister-company Zellis to support our colleagues.

Listen to your data

HR data can be an important source of information on mental health and wellbeing – and analysing your data is essential before making any HR decisions. With it, you can dig into your absenteeism data, performance reviews, staff turnover, and exit interviews to create a clear picture about your people, and where to focus your efforts. If you’re not sure where to start with managing SAD in the workplace, start there.

Moorepay can help you with this. Take a look at our HR Services, Employee Assistance Programme, and Absence Management Support brochure to find out more.

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About the author

Karis Lambert

About the author

Karis Lambert

Karis Lambert is Moorepay's Digital Marketing Executive, having joined the team in 2020. Karis is CIM qualified, and keeps our customers up-to-date with Moorepay's market-leading knowledge and advice through our digital channels, including the website.

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