Seasonal Affective Disorder – How Employers Are Impacted

When it comes to the dullness that the winter months bring in Canada, both employers and employees should recognize and understand the behavioural changes that may occur. As fall comes to an end and winter comes around, the dreary and chilly days with little sunlight may trigger a depressive and dreaded feeling for some people. This is not to be viewed as normal winter blues that most individuals experience, but is a Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that affects their productivity and happiness. For those who are diagnosed with SAD, it is not a “mind over matter” situation to be taken lightly. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) classifies the condition as a “major depressive disorder” that affects the mood and mental health of individuals. Many SAD sufferers in the workplace watch their performance diminish and social relationships deteriorate, particularly in an office environment where there is limited understanding of this mental illness.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has revealed that 2 – 3 percent of the general population may have SAD, while another 15 percent will have “winter blues” which is less severe. So, what are the behavioural changes that occur for employees suffering from SAD? A pioneer in the field, Norman Rosenthal, MD, has identified the following as core symptoms:

  • Reduced energy;
  • Increased eating, including carbohydrates cravings;
  • Disturbed sleep;
  • Thinking problems, such as difficulty concentrating and processing information; and
  • Mood problems, particularly depression.

It is the sensitivity of some individuals to the low doses of sunlight exposure that triggers the range of issues mentioned above. The lack of daylight in the long stretches of winter disrupts the rhythm of the body and reduces serotonin (brain chemical affecting mood and energy). With the body out of balance, a problem also develops with the body regulating melatonin (type of hormone that affects sleep pattern and mood). As SAD is considered a mental health disability, it makes perfect sense to have programs or systems in place to assist employees in reducing the persistence of the symptoms.

Here are some solutions for SAD symptoms:

Light Therapy – Since individuals with SAD develop their symptoms during winter when there is reduced sunshine and extended darkness, the basic solution is to replace the light that has been missing. Employers can help by organizing more outdoor meetings or activities on bright winter days. Another effective strategy is administering light through fixtures such as a light box to imitate outdoor lights or portable, head-mounted light devices that stimulate a summer dawn. Even an opportunity to sit close to a window where there is closer contact with sunlight can reduce SAD symptoms.

Diet and Exercise – It is quite common for SAD sufferers to gain weight in the winter because of a craving for sugar and little exercise. The gray, cold and stony winter days usually trigger a slump in energy. What follows is a pattern of binge eating to overcome the lethargy. Unfortunately, sometimes the weight gain remains long after the winter days. Where an organization serves food, it would make sense to limit servings of sugary foods and offer other healthy options. Promoting intermittent exercise breaks at the workplace can improve the functioning of the brain and overall energy level. Another good strategy is the use of standing desks to prevent long periods of sitting and increase the inclination to move around.

Attention & Openness to SAD Conversations – An organization with a culture of openness to mental health discussions will find it easier to talk about SAD. A good start is be attentive to employees who show a pattern of SAD symptoms and initiate conversations about the disorder. Encourage employees to seek counselling through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as well as medical intervention where necessary. In fact, since SAD is cyclical, this is an opportunity for organizations to build awareness of mental health challenges through educational sessions. As communication is key in a psychologically healthy workplace, organizations should foster an atmosphere of openness to discuss SAD symptoms and offer self-help strategies to employees long before winter hits.

Organizational Flexibility – It is important for employers to recognize their duty to accommodate employees diagnosed with SAD. In doing so, they should make reasonable effort to adjust or approve new work procedures where necessary. Some recommendations include encouraging outdoor breaks on winter days when there is a burst of sunshine; exercising discretion when a request is made, e.g. flexibility in the granting of extended leave to SAD sufferers; offering remote work options that have more favourable surroundings; re-considering the assignment of complex work assignments to those afflicted with SAD, as the cognitive difficulties they face may affect their deliverables.

As we prepare to face another winter, it is important that organizations are seasonally ready to combat the range of challenges that may come during this period. The usual winter-proofing activities should involve physical and mental safe-guards. In doing so, employers should make mental issues discussable and where necessary exercise their duty to accommodate.

At Pesce & Associates we can help in creating a psychologically safe workplace. For more information, please visit our website at www.pesceassociates.com or contact Elizabeth Hill, Managing Partner, at 416- 491-1501 extension 23 or ehill@pesceassociates.com.

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