Seasonal Affective Disorder (Seasonal Depression)

Even though it’s normal to feel happier and more vibrant when the sun is shining, the change in seasons can have a greater effect on some employees, and may lead to symptoms of depression that threaten engagement and productivity.

Sarah Korba
Sep 15, 2023
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It’s that time of the year again! The days are getting shorter, the temperature is dropping, the air is feeling crisp and cool – winter is finally here! With the arrival of this season, many employees may experience a drop in energy and motivation. Even though it’s normal to feel happier and more vibrant when the sun is shining, the change in seasons can have a greater effect on some employees, and may lead to symptoms of depression that threaten engagement and productivity. Keep reading to learn more about how Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as Seasonal Depression, may impact your life and the lives of those around you.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that typically starts in the fall and lasts throughout the winter. It is a recognised medical condition that affects hormone levels, specifically melatonin and serotonin, in the part of the brain responsible for regulating mood.  For many employees, seasonal change that happens in the winter season can bring sadness, decrease engagement, and hinder productivity.

It’s important for leaders to recognise seasonal depression as a real condition and provide support for employees who may be struggling with it. In contrast, Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder is a less common condition where depression occurs during the summer months.

Main symptoms of SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can cause a range of symptoms, including: 

  • Feelings of sadness or low mood that persist throughout the day, nearly every day
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
  • Low energy and feelings of sluggishness
  • Oversleeping or having trouble sleeping
  • Cravings for carbohydrates, overeating, and weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Thoughts of not wanting to live

In the workplace, SAD can present as a lack of energy and concentration, increased sadness or guilt, and other signs of burnout such as fatigue and hopelessness. Additional symptoms may include a lack of interest or effort towards work, a negative attitude, difficulty communicating, and increased absenteeism. Employees with SAD may also struggle with productivity and may feel withdrawn from work as they isolate themselves from the colleagues they directly or indirectly work with. 

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (seasonal depression)?

The exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not fully understood, but several factors may contribute to its development. Reduced sunlight exposure is believed to play a significant role in triggering SAD, as it disrupts the body’s internal clock and alters the production of melatonin and serotonin hormones that regulate mood. Genetic factors may also play a role, as research has shown that individuals with a family history of depression are more likely to develop SAD. Changes in brain chemistry, specifically imbalances in serotonin and melatonin, may also contribute to the development of SAD. Additionally, lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise, poor diet, and social isolation may exacerbate the symptoms of SAD.

How common is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is estimated to affect around 2-8% of the total population in Europe. It is more commonly found in northern regions where there are shorter daylight hours during the winter months. Within the workplace, SAD can affect people across all levels and positions. However, it may be more prevalent among individuals who work indoors or those who do not have access to natural sunlight during the day. This is why it is important for employers to recognise the prevalence of SAD and provide support and accommodations for employees who may be struggling with this condition.

How to ease seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can be treated in a number of ways, depending on the severity of the symptoms. Here are some simple suggestions for managing and treating SAD:

  • Light therapy: This involves sitting in front of a special light box that mimics natural sunlight for a certain amount of time each day. This can help regulate circadian rhythms and improve mood.
  • Psychotherapy: Talking to a mental health professional can help you better understand and cope with your SAD symptoms. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that has been shown to be effective in treating SAD.
  • Antidepressant medications: Certain types of antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can be effective in treating SAD. However, it’s important to consult with a doctor or psychiatrist to determine if medication is right for you.
  • Vitamin D: Some research has suggested that increasing vitamin D intake, either through supplements or by spending time outdoors, can help alleviate symptoms of SAD.
  • Self-care: Practising good self-care habits, such as exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in activities you enjoy, can help improve your overall mood and well-being.

Remember, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional if you suspect you may have SAD or if your symptoms are severe. They can help you determine the best treatment for your individual needs.

How can leaders help reduce impacts of SAD?

Here are some actionable ideas that you can follow as a leader to ease the effect of seasonal changes on everyone in the office.

  • Let the sunshine in: placing desks in naturally lit areas, using lighter curtains, and installing lamps or light therapy boxes are effective ways to boost mood and reduce many SAD symptoms. Researchers have found that light therapy boxes are effective in 60% to 90% of cases. You can also consider rising with the sun and including some exercise in your daily routine as you welcome in the early morning light.
  • Offer flexible hours: allowing employees to choose their work hours or work partially from home is a way to show support and give them time to enjoy the sunshine before work. Many companies who offer flex hours allow employees to come into work between 7:00 to 10:00 a.m. and work an eight-hour shift on their own schedule. This allows someone with SAD the opportunity to enjoy the sun while it is still out before work.
  • Increase proactive dialogue: establishing an open dialogue helps employees feel comfortable in expressing their feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. This involves keeping lines of communication open while showing respect for everyone around us.

How can employees reduce the impacts of SAD in the workplace?

As an employee, you can follow these tips to reduce the symptoms of seasonal depression and improve the way you feel when you are dealing with the fall blues: 

  • Stick to a healthy diet: eating small and well-balanced meals with plenty of fruit and vegetables helps boost energy levels and improve brain function. There is some evidence that the following foods can soothe depression:
    • Oyster and mussels
    • Green leafy vegetables
    • Peppers
    • Cruciferous vegetables
    • Pomelo
    • Liver and organ meats
    • Crab
    • Pumpkin
  • Stay active: exercising on a frigid winter day can be difficult, but this natural mood and immunity-booster is very much worth the effort. Regular, moderate aerobic exercise can be an effective treatment for any type of depression.
  • Seek professional help: if the tips mentioned above can improve your symptoms, that’s great! But remember, you are not alone! It never hurts to seek professional help, especially when you feel like you need it. Your mental health professional will offer you the best treatment options to help you feel better.

In conclusion, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real and impactful condition that affects many individuals during the fall and winter months. It can lead to symptoms of depression, decreased motivation, and reduced productivity in the workplace. Recognising the signs and symptoms of SAD is crucial for both leaders and employees in order to provide support and accommodations for those affected.
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