Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder in the workplace

By Sophie Gane

 “If you intervene early, you can reduce the length of a mental health-related absence by 18%” 
Joy Reymond, Unum

Here’s what you can do as an employer to identify and alleviate the issues caused by SAD.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
It’s a form of depression experienced during a particular time of year. Our mental state can be exacerbated by weather, temperature, and daylight. These things affect us all, and most of us may experience what is broadly known as ‘winter blues’, or ‘sub-syndromal SAD’. However, sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder will experience a heightened change in mood, and tend to exhibit symptoms of depression. It’s a recognised mental health disorder, which is more common in places like the UK where there is a variation in weather and daylight hours across the seasons. Closer to the equator, SAD is less common.

What causes SAD?
There are several theories behind this, but generally speaking, most psychiatrists agree that a combination of the following is what leads to SAD:

  • Effects of light. The part of the brain that controls sleep, appetite, temperature, mood and activity is influenced when light hits the back of the eye. Without enough light, these functions can slow down.
  • Decreased serotonin levels. Serotonin is used by the brain to regulate our mood. If you suffer with depression, including SAD, you’ll probably find that your serotonin levels are low.
  • High melatonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone that makes us sleep. Your brain produces melatonin when it gets dark, so you’ll find that you often feel tired earlier in the evening during the winter months.

Employers – recognise the symptoms
Now we know what it is and how it happens, as an employer, what can you look out for in a colleague who may be suffering in silence?

  • First, you’ll want to be most conscious of SAD symptoms between September and November.
  • Lack of energy. This will be more than just the Monday morning caffeine deficiency. Someone who is persistently struggling to complete the normal, everyday tasks they could ordinarily do standing on their head may well need more than just a good cup of tea. They might be taking longer than usual to respond to emails. They might be making rookie mistakes, miscalculations or forgetting about regular meetings – just keep an eye out.
  • Concentration problems. We’re talking more than your average “Friday afternoon before a bank holiday” lack of concentration. If you’re noticing someone uncharacteristically jumping up from their desk more than usual, hopping from one task to another, glazing over during meetings and presentations, these could all be pointers.
  • Comfort eating. This can be quite hard to spot in the build-up to Christmas, as your colleagues probably tend to bring in treats during this time of year. However, it doesn’t occur often around normal mealtimes, it’s more of a snacking habit.
  • Mood changes and social problems. You might have noticed a colleague going through a spell of hyperactivity or cheerfulness during Spring or Autumn. This can be a sign of SAD. As can difficult or destructive behaviour during winter months.

You can find more in-depth information on the symptoms and causes of SAD online at

How do I help my team with SAD?
Our friends at Unum say you’ll need three strategies: prevention, intervention, and protection:

  • Prevention. There are many things you can do to prevent or reduce the chances of your team developing intense SAD symptoms. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily a quick fix; a lot of SAD cases are exacerbated by stress, which is often the result of poor company culture and/or working practices.
  • Simply by encouraging people to talk about mental health, you are taking the first step towards an open office culture; in itself this could do wonders for a potential sufferer.
  • Open and honest communications to staff addressing mental health – either one-on-one or via email – will help improve this culture.
  • Having a light, spacious office can really help. Avoiding dark wall colours or patterns so that as much light is reflected as much as possible can help lower melatonin levels and stimulate brain function.
  • Encouraging regular breaks is key. In winter months, we’re often travelling to and from work in the dark, so lunchtime is our best opportunity to take in some daylight.
  • Expectations of staff need to be realistic. Piling on copious amounts of work could lead to a downturn in productivity.
  • If you do notice your colleagues suffering, there are some things you can do to alleviate the symptoms and hopefully prevent them from turning more serious.
  • Internal support such as training, guidance, peer-to-peer support, HR surgery sessions; anything that provides a safe space where people can feel comfortable and discuss SAD.
  • Flexible working can help. Often, SAD sufferers will experience disturbed sleep. If someone is habitually late for work due to oversleeping, it’s important to have an open discussion and work out what scheduling might work better for them.
  • Health and wellbeing strategies through your employee benefits offering will be a great tool for this. You may not necessarily be a mental health expert, but someone else is. Mindfulness programmes and access to helplines and online doctors are increasing in popularity with employers. Our Marketplace brings a whole host of health and wellbeing tools to your employees.
  • All of the above must be explicitly but sensitively communicated to your employees. Benefex’s Engagement team are dedicated to your internal communications; they’re experts at it.
  • Protection. In the more serious cases, professional support might be necessary. Your reward and benefits. Alongside the aforementioned health and wellbeing benefits on offer, you may need to take it one step further for those who may be off work for an extended time. Income protection and vocational rehabilitation could be introduced to your employees. Adjustments to the workplace. Occupational Health services can advise you on how you can improve where you work for the benefit of mental health. Return to Work. A phased return will ensure that a sufferer can ease back into work comfortably without regressing. Regular check-ups once they’re back to work will help you intervene early if you see the symptoms again.

If you feel you need help supporting your employees with mental health throughout the Winter period, why not give us a call on 0844 963 0023.