9 January 2020

What’s the impact of seasonal affective disorder at work, and what can HR do to help?

From high absence levels to low productivity, SAD can affect employees in many ways. Here’s how HR can make a difference

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Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir worked as a content marketing writer at Ciphr from 2019 to 2021.

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Health and wellbeing Performance

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From high absence levels to low productivity, SAD can affect employees in many ways. Here’s how HR can make a difference

As employees prepare for a new year of work – while still dealing with the impact of remote working and the coronavirus pandemic – their mood is likely to be affected. Nearly two million people globally are affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – but what is it, how can it affect employees at work, and what can HR do to help?

What is seasonal affective disorder?

According to the NHS, SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, with most sufferers experiencing more symptoms during the winter months. While no exact cause of SAD has been determined by medical experts, it’s thought that the lack of sunlight affects sufferer’s internal body clock and lowers their levels of hormones such as melatonin and serotonin, making them feel irritable, tired, worthless and low. Some people may be more vulnerable to SAD as a result of their genes. It’s estimated that up to 6% of the UK population may suffer from recurrent seasonal depression.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

SAD can manifest in different ways and to different degrees, but common symptoms can include:

  • 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

The impact of SAD at work

Long working days and fewer daylight hours in the UK during the winter months mean many office-based workers probably don’t get enough exposure to sunlight – meaning employers and line managers have a duty of care to support those experiencing SAD. You may find that SAD sufferers are more likely to call in sick, find it harder to concentrate on their work, lack energy and are unable to perform to their best level. This means that their productivity may fall, while absence levels may rise.

What can be done to help?

As with so many workplace wellbeing challenges, communication is key. By asking employees how they feel and letting them open up, you can gain a better understanding of what they are going through.

Rohan Kallicharan, head of people and talent at Receipt Bank, is an ambassador for Mind and works to increase mental health awareness in his own workplace after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006. He says listening to employees who are experiencing SAD is crucial .

“Being human means listening and empowering our teams to maximise their wellbeing and potential and that means asking them to tell you what the impact is and actually wanting to hear their response,” he says. “As in all we do as a people function, it’s about finding solutions which allow our people to thrive, and with SAD, like any other mental health challenge, it’s about findings solution and not just challenges.”

Kallicharan adds: “When we are compassionate and seek to understand, people feel like they belong. This is especially vital at a time when, often, little else makes sense.”

Educating yourself on SAD and mental health in general can help employees feel supported. Amrit Sandhar, founder of The Engagement Coach, says that while it “might be easy to dismiss SAD sufferers by telling them to ‘pull themselves together’ or to ‘get over it’, SAD is a form of depression and should be treated in the same way.” By raising awareness of SAD in the workplace, employees know they have someone to turn to, motivating them to seek help and advice as a result. Publicising support and services from charities such as Mind, or from your employee assistance programme (EAP) provider, if you have one, is a great first step.

If you’re able, consider altering the design of your office to improve the availability of natural daylight. According to Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index 2017/18, more than a quarter of employers (26%) do not have exposure to natural daylight in all their workspaces.

If it’s not possible to reconfigure your workspace, it might be more feasible to fit full-spectrum bright lights in poorly lit areas, which have been found to alleviate symptoms of mild depression. You could also encourage employees to exercise more regularly – especially outdoors – and step away from their desks during their lunch breaks.