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Why employers should be aware of SAD

The gloom of Winter can make it more difficult for many to get going in the mornings, but for some people it can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

SAD is a type of depression that can come on in the Autumn and continue until Spring. Figures supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists show that one in every three people are affected in some way by the disorder, with as many as one in 15 being severely affected.

At its worst SAD can have a significant impact on working life. So what exactly is SAD and how can employers help?

What is SAD and why does it happen?

Shorter days and longer darker nights are associated with season-specific depression; fewer than 12 hours of available daylight can be a risk factor for SAD. While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, theories by the National Sleep Foundation suggest it involves circadian rhythms and melatonin in the body. When it’s dark outside your eyes signal to the hypothalamus in your brain that it’s time to feel tired. Your body’s pineal gland then releases melatonin, which makes your body respond with tired sensations. Other ideas look to serotonin regulation – which affects mood – playing a key factor, which can be affected by a number of things, including lack of vitamin D.

An American study by the National Institute of Mental Health showed that SAD occurs more frequently in people who live far North or South of the Equator: 9% of people living in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD compared to only 1% of those living in Florida. For people based in the UK, once the clocks go back at the end of October we enter ‘SAD risk territory'.

The study also showed that SAD is four times more common in women than in men. Having a family history or personal history of depression also puts you at risk of SAD and is more common in younger adults than in older adults.

While there is more research to be done, we know SAD can have a significant impact on day-to-day life. Sufferers often find that they experience negative changes in mood and a strong desire to sleep or 'hibernate'. Cravings for carbohydrates also mean many people with SAD tend to eat more (and often badly) and gain weight. They pull away from social activities and complain about having low energy with an intense desire to rest.

SAD at work

With mental health at work now a core concern for many employers, spotting the signs of SAD in your employees early can be the key to helping them tackle it before it diminishes their wellbeing significantly enough to affect productivity or require time off work. In severe cases someone with SAD may end up taking a significant period of absence.

Raising awareness of the symptoms of SAD in the workplace is the first step to helping your employees manage it. Does a member of your team appear more tired or anxious than usual? Is their performance suffering? Are they withdrawn in meetings?

One simple way employers can help reduce the impact of SAD is to ensure their employees have as much exposure to daylight as possible during the Winter months.

Think about how you could encourage your team members to take short walks outside during the day. Could you hold walking meetings instead of using the boardroom? Seeing your senior executives and managers lead by example will help your employees feel free to think about how they can manage their working days differently, including adjusting employee working hours so they can leave in daylight.

Promoting any workplace counselling or employee assistance programme that you offer can also signpost employees towards help at a time when they may need it most. Consider giving employees access to professional support in the shape of counsellors, therapists and psychologists, which can be offered via virtual care. Although not yet standard practice in the UK, virtual care is fast becoming a key benefit and resource for companies across the globe and can be a real differentiator in a company’s employee support package. Some solutions are also integrating mental health services with general medical services so comorbidities can be addressed, such as diabetes and other medical issues that tend to be associated.

While the song goes “There ain’t no cure for the Summertime blues”, there is treatment available for the Wintertime blues. Providing healthy options for employees and access to treatment via specialist therapists and psychologists where necessary can do wonders to positively affect the mood and productivity in your workforce.

Aron Wolf is senior behavioural health quality consultant at Teladoc Health