Winter is coming and the darker days may trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in some of your people. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a psychological condition which results in a recurring low mood at the same time of year. Article from Pablo Vandenabeele – Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK.
SAD is a form of depression that is triggered by lack of exposure to sunlight. The symptoms of SAD are the same as those experienced with non-seasonal depression – including low mood, low self-esteem, lethargy, sleep problems and feelings of anxiety – however it only affects people during the winter months. Living in the UK, we experience significant changes in the levels of daylight we’re exposed to from winter to summer, making us particularly vulnerable to SAD. As many as one in five of us are affected by the condition, and – while the exact reasons for susceptibility to the illness are still relatively unknown – sunlight exposure is linked to our hormone levels, as sunlight and darkness trigger the release of hormones in the brain. Decreased sun exposure has been associated with lowered levels of the hormones responsible for regulating our mood, appetite and sleep patterns.
SAD can have a significant impact on working life. It’s one of the reasons for increased workplace absenteeism in the winter months and can impact productivity. Lifestyle remedies, including more exercise, time spent outside and diet changes are recommended to alleviate the mood dips that come with SAD. But what about tackling SAD in the workplace? Can employers help to safeguard and support their employees who are susceptible to SAD? And if so, how?
Tackling SAD as part of a mentally-healthy workplace
The UK is now a knowledge-based economy which means that the value that employers are trying to unlock from their people is the information in their heads. Employers recognise that they need to ensure that their people are mentally and physically fit and engaged, in order to do this best. Like any other mental health issues, SAD affects different sufferers in different ways. Promoting an open and supportive environment where people feel comfortable talking about their mental health challenges and line managers feel confident that they can provide support is key.
Stop, listen and look
With SAD, just as with any other physical and mental condition, early intervention is key. There are signs that colleagues may notice which suggests that someone is suffering from SAD such as becoming more irritable or withdrawn. Does an employee appear tired or anxious? Are they missing deadlines or staying late at work?
If you believe an employee may be suffering from a mental health problem you may need to take the first step and encourage them to talk. Making people aware of the causes and symptoms of SAD, is the first step to taking action and helping your employees to tackle it. It is also important for businesses to promote any help they offer their people e.g. counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy through an Employee Assistance Programme.
Practical steps to tackling the problem
One simple way employers can help to diminish the effects of SAD is to ensure that people have as much exposure to sunlight as possible once the clocks go back. Ensuring that all the blinds are open and allowing in natural light is a simple thing to do but can make a significant impact. Regular exercise is essential. Encourage employees to leave their desk to take a short walk during the day. The health benefits of regular exercise should be promoted within internal communications activity – and a ‘top-down’ approach is recommended, with senior executives leading by example and endorsing a healthy approach to exercise.
Walking meetings have become popular in many UK businesses looking to improve the cardiovascular health of their employees, but it is an initative that could benefit those suffering from SAD too. Also, make sure colleagues are taking that all important lunch break. It is an opportune time for employees who are susceptible to SAD to get out and about’ in natural light. Many people often work through lunch, but eating lunch is important as a healthy, balanced diet helps to make sure the brain gets the energy it needs to function properly. Eating little and often, and drinking enough water throughout the day to can help ensure that you are properly energised and hydrated.