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Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affecting your employees? We explore the impact of winter on mental health at work and what employers can do to combat the condition.

John McCarthy, aged 46, experiences aches and pains that “last for months” and difficulty communicating. “Words are fast in my head but slow coming out when I talk; it’s hard to follow a conversation because I can’t track the words fast enough,” John explains.

Jessica Krom, aged 35, says, “I feel myself wanting to cry for no reason, I overreact extensively and am extremely irritable. There are days when I can’t bring myself to get out of bed or function.”

John and Jessica suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a form of depression that typically occurs during colder months – also called the “winter blues”. Their condition is not uncommon. 1 in 15 people in the UK are affected by SAD according to the NHS, and 3 people in every 100 experience severe symptoms.

Understanding SAD

No one knows for sure how SAD is caused, but scientists believe it’s linked to a lack of sunlight, causing serotonin levels to decrease and melatonin levels to increase – adversely affecting the way people think and feel. Even though SAD is a recognised mental health condition, people who suffer from it are often sorely misunderstood and its effects gravely underestimated.

Mild symptoms of SAD (Subsyndromal SAD) include:

  • A loss of interest in activities
  • Tiredness or a lack of energy
  • Sleeping for unusually long periods

In severe cases, SAD can be debilitating, causing suicidal thoughts, feelings of hopelessness, and difficulty concentrating – often affecting a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities and impacting negatively on their working life. This is a serious problem. Not only for people living with SAD, but for employers who want to get the best out of their workforce.

The business impact of SAD

The impact on employees is significant but what are the implications for businesses? According to a UK survey by workplace consultants, Peldon Rose:

  • 44% of employees say winter has a negative effect on their mental wellbeing
  • 35% believe they are suffering or have suffered from SAD
  • 30% state winter affects their productivity

With such numbers affected by the condition, it’s not surprising that it has registered with employers. In one study, almost a quarter of HR professionals (23%) said they have encountered employees suffering from SAD at their workplace, whilst 43 percent said they have noticed a decline in staff productivity during the winter.

Research by Epson reveals that 9.6 million work days are lost each year due to employees suffering from SAD. What’s more, it’s reported that, on average, those who suffer are absent from work for four days a year, as a result of the condition. So the ramifications of SAD – increased workplace absenteeism, presenteeism, and lost productivity – can be costly.

The challenge for employers, therefore, is to minimise the impact it has on employees’ mental health and limit its disruption in the workplace. So the question then becomes, “How can employers help employees with SAD?” It’s a multi-layered solution:

Overcoming the challenges of SAD

Raise awareness of SAD. Employers should seek to raise awareness of SAD and coping mechanisms. This could be in the form of an informative guide or internal communications circulated to staff in the run-up to, and during the winter months. Or encourage open conversations about mental health, so employees can feel supported at work.

Modify the work environment. 90% of staff believe that having natural light in their workplace is fundamental for supporting their wellbeing. It follows that employers should make adjustments where possible, to ensure employees are working in natural light and eliminate any obstruction of sunlight in the office. This can mean rethinking office space and design to provide greater exposure to sunlight.

Does that mean employers need to invest heavily in revamping the office space? Not necessarily. Employers can purchase SAD light-therapy lamps, which simulate exposure to sunlight – helping to reduce the production of melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) and increase the production of serotonin (referred to as a happiness chemical). They’re inexpensive and can be effective in relieving symptoms of SAD. Other small changes such as modifying seating arrangements, opening the office blinds, or utilising meeting rooms with ambient lighting as workspaces can make a big difference.

Involve employees in office redesign. 70% of workers say greater involvement in decision-making concerning the work environment would positively impact their productivity. This highlights the need for employers to engage with employees in the development stages of office architectural change. By encouraging employee participation and welcoming ideas, organisations can design for workspaces that are more likely to minimise the effects of SAD and have a positive impact on employee performance.

Promote a healthy lifestyle. Help employees to develop healthy habits that boost their mood and improve their wellbeing. Employers should provide healthy eating options such as fresh fruit, diet drinks, and herbal teas to encourage a healthier diet. It’s also important to promote regular exercise in the workplace, which is known to have mood-enhancing benefits.

Recognising the need to tackle SAD

Adopting measures like those mentioned above is not only beneficial for employees, but crucial for employers if they want to avoid substantial costs in lost productivity. The implications of SAD on sickness, absenteeism and staff productivity, warrants the attention of businesses. Employers ought to concentrate on minimising the effects of SAD, which is fast becoming a business imperative.

Recognising the impact of winter on employee mental health is the first step for employers in managing it.

The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support good mental health.

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