Coping with seasonal affective disorder at work: a guide for managers and employees



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7 mins


Shorter daylight hours can cause depression for some workers. Our guide to coping with seasonal affective disorder at work will help you stay well all winter

If you find your mood starts to dip when the days grow shorter, or you find it harder to complete simple tasks after the clocks go back, then you might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Coping with seasonal affective disorder at work is possible, but you’ll need the support of your manager and colleagues to help manage your symptoms, take preventative action, and handle the challenging months ahead.

Remember, if you feel that you are experiencing seasonal affective disorder, or any form of depression or mental health problem, please seek professional support. The information in this article should not be taken as medical advice.

In this article:

What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

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 (although some do experience it during the summer).

While medical experts are yet to determine SAD’s exact cause, it’s thought that the lack of sunlight affects the sufferer’s internal body clock and lowers their levels of hormones such as melatonin and serotonin, making them feel irritable, tired, worthless, and low. It’s also thought that some people may be more vulnerable to SAD because of their genes. Seasonal affective disorder affects both adults and children.

How common is seasonal affective disorder?

The prevalence of seasonal affective disorder is related to a country’s latitude, and can affect between 1.5% and 9% of a country’s population. SAD is estimated to affect around 1 in twenty people, and more than 12 million people in northern Europe.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder 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
  • Feeling unsociable
  • Overeating

These symptoms can significantly individuals’ impact on their working lives and ability to be productive.

Is seasonal affective disorder a disability?

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression. Depression is recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if it has a long-term affect on an individual’s day-to-day activity. ‘Long term’ is typically defined as a period of more than 12 months. Employers and managers should take care to treat individuals suffering with seasonal affective disorder in the same way that they would those with other forms of depression.

The impact of seasonal affective disorder 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, exacerbating symptoms for sufferers. 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.

HR teams will be able to identify trends in absence if managers and employees diligently record sickness absence in HR software or specialist absence management software. You should also require managers to carry out return to work interviews, to ensure that employees are fit and well to return to work, and encourage open conversations about what adjustments might be necessary to ensure that employees suffering from seasonal affective disorder are sufficiently supported.

Coping with seasonal affective disorder at work: advice for managers and employees

As with so many workplace wellbeing challenges, culture and communication is key. You’ll need to cultivate mental health awareness across your organisation, and build trusting relationships between managers and employees so that people feel safe talking about the difficulties they’re facing.

Speaking to Ciphr in 2020, Rohan Kallicharan, former head of people and talent at Receipt Bank and ambassador for Mind, said that 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 said. “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 added: “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 and help them cope with the impact of seasonal affective disorder at work. 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.

Remember, office design can have a significant impact on productivity. So, 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. Supporting flexible working patterns and remote working, where possible, can help employees to take these breaks and give them more opportunities for exercise during their working day.

Ciphr’s HR software is here to help with absence management

If you’re looking for HR systems that help you manage, track, and report on absence management, look no further than Ciphr. Our HR software helps managers and employees input absence types – including mental health problems, such as seasonal affective disorder – and record the outputs of return to work conversations, as well as next actions. Plus, our sentimental analysis tool helps you take a ‘temperature check’ of your employees’ happiness at work.

If you want to find out more, arrange a free, no-obligation demo now. Or, if you’re not ready to take that next step yet, why not read more from our wellbeing hub:


This article was first published in January 2020. It was updated in October 2023 for freshness, clarity, and accuracy.