Seasonal affective disorder in the workplace

Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead – Mental Health Services at AXA Health

Seasonal affective disorder in the workplace

26 October 2020

Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead – Mental Health Services at AXA Health, provides information on seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the workplace, alongside tips on how small business owners can support employees who may be experiencing SAD. 

Environmental factors such as seasonal change can impact our mental wellbeing. Many of us experience the ‘winter blues’ or ‘subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder’. However, seasonal affective disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition where individuals experience a heightened change in mood and tend to exhibit symptoms of depression. This is common in the UK where we have recognisable seasonal variation and is less likely in countries that are closer to the equator.

Seasonal affective disorder (sometimes referred to as SAD) is more common in the winter, however some people may experience this type of depression during other seasonal changes.

With mental health conditions accounting for 12.4% of the 141.4 million working days lost due to sickness absence in 20181, it’s clear how SAD could be affecting your business through employee absence. Alongside absence, SAD may also be having a negative effect on overall productivity within your business. According to one research study, 30% said winter negatively affects their productivity2.

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Symptoms of SAD in the workplace

As a business owner, what signs might you notice in your colleagues that may indicate that they are struggling with their mental health? 

According to the NHS, symptoms of SAD can include3:

  • A persistent low mood 
  • A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

When it comes to the impact of these symptoms in one of your team members, you may notice:

  • A drop in their productivity, or that they are taking much longer to complete certain tasks that they would normally find easy
  • They may become more withdrawn and not as sociable as they normally would be
  • A drop in their motivation levels where they may usually be a highly motivated and enthusiastic employee 
  • That they’re more tired than they usually would be and may be more reliant on coffee or unhealthy snacks to help them get through the working day 

What are the treatment options for SAD?

If you notice that a member of your team may be suffering from SAD, then you should recommend that they see their GP who will be able to advise the best treatment option if required. Some of the treatment options may include:

  • Lifestyle measures – such as incorporating as much natural sunlight into the day as possible, exercise and managing stress levels
  • Light therapy – where a light box simulates exposure to sunlight
  • Talking therapies – including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling
  • Antidepressant medication – such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

How to support employees suffering with SAD

  1. Prevention. Prevention is better than cure so start by analysing your company culture. How is stress and pressure managed in your business and could it be improved? If stress and pressure is managed badly, it may also increase the risk of employees living with SAD to be unsupported in the company. 
  2. Be open. Encouraging a culture of open dialogue within your business can help to make your team feel more comfortable speaking up when they may be struggling with their mental wellbeing. Having conversations about this in meetings can be a good first step in normalising the conversation.
  3. Promote the support available. Ensure that your team are aware that support is available and easily accessible whenever they need it. Whether that’s through an Employee Assistance Programme, online tools or newsletters. 
  4. Education. Provide training and awareness to encourage openness and proactivity towards supporting mental health
  5. Environment. Review the working environment in your business, or esnure your team reviews their own work environment if they're working from home. Does it seem gloomy and dark? The workspace should be as light and spacious as possible and dark colours should be avoided. Light can be used to brighten dark corners.
  6. Flexible working. If your business allows for it, you could consider offering the option of flexible working to your team. Some people may struggle with the dark evenings, so allowing them to alter their working hours may mean that they can incorporate more daylight into their working week. 
  7. Place importance on lunch breaks. Encourage your team to make use of their lunch break by going for a walk outside and getting more daylight

How we can help

If someone in your team is experiencing a mental health condition, it can impact all areas of their life. At AXA Health, our Mental Health cover option helps to show your business commitment to supporting mental health. And you’ll be able to help your team start feeling like themselves again, whether they need counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or psychiatric treatment in a private hospital. 

Plus our Stronger Minds* service, available with our Mental Health option, means there’s no need for your employees to wait to get a GP referral if they’re concerned about their mental health. They can call us for a phone assessment with a trained expert who’ll guide them to the right support or refer them to see a specialist.

Our Mental Health option does not cover the treatment of mental health conditions your employees had, or had symptoms of, before they joined, unless you've chosen a 'continued medical exclusions' or 'medical history disregarded' policy.

Find out more about our Mental Health cover option, including what is and isn’t covered, and get a quote today

*Stronger Minds is available for members aged 18 and over.

Sources and references

1Office for National Statistics, 2019

2Peldon Rose via HR Magazine, 2019


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