Seasonal Affective Disorder

22 December 2022

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real condition that many people struggle with in the winter season, when the nights draw in and there is less daylight. It is a type of low mood or depressive state that has a number of symptoms. The Royal College of Psychiatrists estimate that around 3% of people are affected by winter depression.

The precise causes of SAD are unclear but it’s believed that lower duration and levels of sunlight can affect the production of melatonin that controls our sleep cycle and low levels of light can also mean lower levels of serotonin (a hormone that affects mood level) for some people.

Why should employers be aware of SAD?

SAD can have a significant impact on an employee’s wellbeing and productivity and may help explain a change in an employee’s behaviour or attitude. Helping to deal with wellbeing issues should be a priority for employers. In order to help create a happy and productive workplace, issues such as SAD need to be identified and support offered.

What impact can it have on employee health and wellbeing and, in turn, engagement and productivity?

Low mood can have a hugely detrimental impact on quality of work, creativity, relationships and presenteeism.

The Office for National Statistics found that mental health issues ranked 5th as the reason for sickness absence in 2020 in the UK labour market, at nearly 12% of all absences. At any one time, a sixth of the population in England aged 16 to 64 have a mental health problem, according to statistics body NHS Digital. If SAD is not identified and dealt with, it can lead to depression. 

How can employers recognise the symptoms?

  1. Persistent low moods
    An employee may seem more irritable, stressed or anxious than usual. You feel the awkwardness of prolonged silences, when you’re used to animated conversation and they may seem distracted or despondent.
  2. Less sociable
    They may be less outgoing and possibly reluctant to spend time with people. They may cancel plans because they don’t feel up to socialising.
  3. More emotional
    They may be showing more extreme emotions – they’re teary or angry. The language they use is negative; they seem to be feeling despair, worthlessness and / or guilt. This happens when a lack of sunlight affects our hormones.
  4. Loss of interest
    They seem disinterested in normal, everyday activities.
  5. Low energy
    They tell you they struggle to wake up in the morning and feel lethargic and sleepy throughout the day.
  6. Changes in appetite
    They may snack a lot and crave comfort food, like chocolate and high carbohydrate foods like white bread and rice. These tend to be high in processed sugars, so rapidly raise blood sugar, flood our bodies with insulin and leave us feeling low. Seasonal weight gain is therefore common, especially in winter when it’s hard to find motivation to exercise or venture outside.

The last two symptoms are important when it comes to differentiating between SAD and non-seasonal depression. While people with SAD commonly eat more and sleep more, those experiencing non-seasonal depression eat less and sleep less.

What employee benefits could help employees suffering from SAD?

It’s often really helpful to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Our Employee Assistance Program has mental health professional available 24/7. Private Medical Insurance may cover counselling or psychotherapy, such as CBT.

Some small changes can make a big difference too. The ability to work flexibly could mean the opportunity to get outside during the day to take advantage of a walk in the daylight. Or even moving a desk closer to a window could help. Alternatively, items such as a lightbox can help people who may struggle to get outside during the day.

There are also apps available that can assist with mindfulness, sleep management and mood monitoring. 

Which of these is likely to be most effective in tackling SAD and why?

Different things work for different people – not everyone likes exercise and some might prefer mindfulness while others find being intentionally social helps. It’s best for people to try a variety of things until they find the right fit for them. 

How can employers encourage open communication on the issue?

It’s really important to create a workplace where people can have open and honest conversations and discuss the issues they’re facing. We encourage colleagues to speak to their line manager or if they prefer, a Mind Ally. We’re working hard to create a mentally healthy culture and encourage everyone to be open when talking about their mental wellbeing, just as they might their physical health. 

Why is it important that employers take action?

SAD is a real issue, but unfortunately one that is not well recognised. Some people might just think they are a bit off or not quite themselves, but if the cause isn’t identified and action taken, it could lead to further issues. 

Employers have a responsibility to look after and support their people and creating a culture of openness and respect is good for employees, for our business and for our customers.