13th January 2020
Do you feel a bit low and perhaps a bit sluggish at the moment? Maybe you’ve lost interest in things you usually enjoy doing or have no motivation to do anything. You’re probably just having an off day (or month), right?
That might be so, but the chances are that you’re actually suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly known as SAD for short.
What is SAD?
SAD is a certain type of depression which is influenced by seasonal patterns. It’s most commonly apparent in the winter months when the weather is typically colder, wetter and darker; although some cases have seen people suffering symptoms in the summer months and actually feeling better in the winter.
What are the Symptoms?
Most people suffering from SAD only experience the symptoms on a small scale. These include:
- A persistent low mood.
- A loff of enjoyment or interest in normal, everyday activities.
- Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness.
- Feeling lethargic and sleeping during the day.
- Sleeping for longer than usual and finding getting up in the morning is difficult.
- Craving carbohydrates.
- Gaining weight.
Though, for some, these symptoms present in a much more severe way and have a significant impact on their lives and day-to-day activities.
What Causes SAD?
There is currently no explicit definition of what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder, but there are a few contributing factors that are agreed on by most psychiatrists:
Light – The part of the brain responsible for controlling sleep, appetite, temperature, mood and activity is influenced by light hitting the back of the eye. Where there’s a lack of natural sunlight, these functions begin to slow down.
Serotonin levels – Serotonin is a chemical produced by nerve cells and is used by the brain to regulate our mood. People with SAD – or any other form of depression, for that matter – will
Melatonin levels – Melatonin is a hormone that regulates our sleep cycle. The brain produces melatonin when it gets dark, so it’s only natural that you start to feel tired earlier in the wintertime. People with high levels of melatonin are likely to feel more tired and sluggish than most when it gets dark early.
How does SAD Affect People at Work?
Seasonal Affective Disorder can affect people at different intensities, but for those who suffer more severely, SAD can cause depression, anxiety, panic attacks and mood changes, as well as a lack of energy and concentration.
These symptoms make life difficult for sufferers in general, especially affecting their usual capacity to work.
With more than 60% of people with SAD reporting it harder to even get out of bed in the morning, it should be no surprise that employers notice a higher rate of absences as a result of staff suffering from the disorder.
When they are able to make it into work, productivity plummets due to a lack of enthusiasm and the quality of work produced can often falter, too.
Then there’s their general mood. The chances are that colleagues suffering from SAD are less inclined to join in with office ‘chit-chat’ and you can probably bet that they won’t feel up to attending any out-of-hours activities such as after-work drinks or the annual Christmas party.
Needless to say, the impact of SAD on a person can also influence their work ethic and social inclinations – all of which will undoubtedly make them feel worse.
How Can Employers Help?
Naturally, you want to help nurture your staffs’ wellbeing as an employer – and the first step towards helping them to manage SAD is to recognise the symptoms. We now know what they are, but how can you spot them in a colleague who might be suffering in silence?
Spotting the Signs
First thing first – be more aware of SAD between October and January when the weather is cold and dark.
Look out for people who seem to be persistently struggling to complete the normal, everyday tasks that they would usually be able to do with their eyes shut. Be mindful of whether they are making rookie mistakes or taking longer to do simple things like sending emails. This could all be a sign of low energy.
If you notice someone uncharacteristically jumping up from their desk for no apparent reason, hopping from one task to another or zoning out during meetings or conversations, you could be witnessing indicators of concentration problems.
Comfort eating is a bit trickier to spot than other symptoms of SAD as the likelihood is you’re in the lead up to Christmas and people re probably bringing in all sorts of sweet treats to share around the office. However, when you’ve worked with someone for a while, you get to learn a little about their eating habits, so any abnormal behaviour around food shouldn’t be too difficult to identify.
Something else to look out for is any mood changes or social problems. You might have noticed a colleague experiencing a bout of hyperactivity or cheerfulness in the spring or summer months, followed closely by difficult or destructive behaviour come autumn and winter.
There are many things you can do to prevent or reduce the chances of your team developing intense SAD symptoms. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily a quick fix; a lot of SAD cases are exacerbated by stress, which is often the result of poor company culture and/or working practices.
- Simply by encouraging people to talk about mental health, you are taking the first step towards an open office culture; in itself, this could do wonders for a potential sufferer.
- Open and honest communications to staff addressing mental health – either one-on-one or via email – will help improve this culture.
- Having a light, spacious office can really help. Avoiding dark wall colours or patterns so that as much light is reflected as much as possible can help lower melatonin levels and stimulate brain function.
- Encouraging regular breaks is key. In winter months, we’re often travelling to and from work in the dark, so lunchtime is our best opportunity to take in some daylight.
- Expectations of staff need to be realistic. Piling on copious amounts of work could lead to a downturn in productivity.
If you do notice your colleagues suffering, there are some things you can do to alleviate the symptoms and hopefully prevent them from turning more serious.
- Internal support such as training, guidance, peer-to-peer support, HR surgery sessions; anything that provides a safe space where people can feel comfortable and discuss SAD.
- Flexible working can help. Often, SAD sufferers will experience disturbed sleep. If someone is habitually late for work due to oversleeping, it’s important to have an open discussion and work out what schedule might work better for them.
- Health and wellbeing strategies through your employee benefits offering will be a great tool for this. You may not necessarily be a mental health expert, but someone else is. Mindfulness programmes and access to helplines and online doctors are increasing in popularity with employers.
In more serious cases, professional support might be necessary. Alongside the aforementioned health and wellbeing benefits on offer, you may need to take it one step further for those who may be off work for an extended time.
- Income protection and vocational rehabilitation could be introduced to your employees.
- Occupational Health services can advise you on how you can improve where you work for the benefit of mental health.
- A phased return will ensure that a sufferer can ease back into work comfortably without regressing.
- Regular check-ups, once they’re back to work, will help you intervene early if you see the symptoms again.
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