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A guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

What employers can do to support staff with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

According to NHS estimates Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects around one in 15 people every year in the UK between the months of September and April. More alarming figures from office design firm Peldon Rose put the proportion even higher, finding that 35% of people identify as having had SAD and that 30% say Winter negatively affects their productivity.

SAD is a form of depression, with symptoms including insomnia, lethargy, weakened immune system, apathy and social withdrawal. It is thought to be caused by lower light levels slowing brain function, decreasing serotonin and increasing melatonin in the body.

As Winter really takes hold, it’s time HR considered the impact SAD has on employees and how it can better support those affected by the condition.

Awareness and communication

The first thing employers should do is raise awareness of SAD, says Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, and train managers to spot the signs of the condition. “This will give managers greater confidence to signpost people to more expert sources of help and to start an open conversation about making adjustments,” she explains.

Communications such as the Environment Agency’s October mental health network internal newsletter, which featured SAD advice and invited staff to share their experiences of the condition, can be a lifeline to those who may otherwise suffer in silence.

Legal & General Group raises awareness among its employees by offering tips on boosting mental wellbeing throughout Winter and providing access to a range of initiatives and activities, such as mindfulness and meditation. “Crucially, employers must strive to make the workplace a safe space for communication and support,” adds Andrew Brown, director of corporate partnerships at Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).

Maximising daylight hours

One practical change can be to adjust working patterns so that employees don’t have to commute both to and from work in the dark. And during the working day itself employers can help employees maximise their exposure to daylight hours.

“Organisations can plan activities that promote good wellbeing, such as suggesting people get outdoors at lunchtime to make the most of the natural light,” says Suff. “Encouraging people to get involved in social networks, providing advice on healthy eating, and hosting exercise classes may also help.”

Brown echoes this advice, pointing to ideas such as holding meetings and team activities outdoors as a means of benefiting SAD sufferers (and staff more generally).

Wellness initiatives

Businesses can go further by offering wellness schemes. According to head of health and wellbeing at Thomsons Online Benefits David Bourne, such schemes can help ensure conditions such as SAD don’t affect an employee’s wellbeing and job.

“We’re increasingly seeing employers instigate ‘wellness pots’, which enable employees to claim back funds for any activity that supports their wellbeing. Such schemes can play an important role in supporting individuals with SAD, enabling them to fund measures that make them feel better – be this a lunchtime running club or light therapy unit,” says Bourne.

Adjustments to the office

Adapting the office environment to improve heat and light conditions is another practical way employers can provide support. Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, says that not everyone experiencing SAD will need help at work. But where adjustments are needed changes to working hours, longer breaks and environmental changes such as installing light units and increasing natural light are good steps to take.

Peldon Rose cites implementing a reliable heating system, removing solid partitions to maximise natural light, incorporating break-out zones, and introducing quiet zones as key environmental changes that can help combat SAD symptoms.

Four-legged support

As well as raising awareness about SAD among staff through internal communications, offering flexible working hours and providing time off to see mental health professionals, animal charity The Blue Cross believes that having pet-friendly offices helps people affected by the condition. The organisation’s health and safety business partner Debbie Mitchell says: “We find this has a huge impact as not only do the office dogs encourage owners to go for walks, but also it is proven that stroking animals lowers blood pressure and releases happy hormones like endorphins and oxytocin.”