Everyone’s heard of the ‘January Blues’ – the period after the festive season when the rush has ended, there’s a seemingly endless wait until payday and the weather seems colder and more miserable than ever.
With the third Monday in January dubbed the gloomiest day of the year, this is also about the time when Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is most likely to rear its ugly head.
The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but the condition is linked to levels and duration of sunlight.
This affects the production of melatonin, which controls our sleep cycle, and for some people less light can also result in reduced levels of a hormone called serotonin, which has an impact on moods.
But is SAD really a real problem that employers need to worry about?
A legitimate condition
While SAD is not like depression, it is a mental health issue which can lead to low mood and poor performance.
Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser (employment relations) at The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), believes that although SAD is not a year-round issue, it is important for organisations to identify those requiring help with it.
“Employers need to understand that SAD is a legitimate health condition and that some employees could need support at work if they are experiencing it,” she says. “They should be aware of some of the main symptoms such as lethargy, insomnia and social withdrawal as well as depression. As it’s a seasonal condition, they should brief managers at this time of year to be alert to signs of people who could be affected.”
Dr John Burke, chief medical officer at AXA Health, agrees, highlighting that it’s a “real condition that many people struggle with”.
He explains: “It is a type of low mood or depressive state which varies in a pattern linked with the seasons. It is usually worse in the winter and is sometimes known as winter depression, although some people can feel worse in the summer and better in the winter.”
Findings from the Royal College of Psychiatrists estimate that around 3% of people are affected by winter depression, Burke adds, so clearly it shouldn’t be ignored at work.
Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health & Protection, says: “SAD may also mask a more serious mental health concern, so it’s important that comprehensive support for mental health issues are also offered.”
Spotting the signs
So what should employers look out for?
According to AXA Health, symptoms that vary with the seasons include:
- Persistent low moods, with an individual seeming more irritable, stressed or anxious than usual. They could also be distracted or despondent.
- Less sociable. Someone may be less outgoing and possibly reluctant to spend time with people. They may cancel plans because they don’t feel up to socialising.
- More emotional. The individual may be showing more extreme emotions – they’re teary or angry. The language they use is negative; they seem to be feeling despair, worthlessness and/or guilt. This happens when a lack of sunlight affects our hormones.
- Loss of interest. They seem disinterested in normal, everyday activities.
- Low energy. The individual may tell you they struggle to wake up in the morning and feel lethargic and sleepy throughout the day.
- Changes in appetite. They may snack a lot and crave comfort food, like chocolate and high carbohydrate foods like white bread and rice. These tend to be high in processed sugars, so rapidly raise blood sugar, flood our bodies with insulin and leave us feeling low. Seasonal weight gain is therefore common, especially in winter when it’s hard to find motivation to exercise or venture outside.
“The last two symptoms can sometimes point towards SAD rather than non-seasonal depression. While people with SAD commonly eat more and sleep more, those experiencing non-seasonal depression more often eat less and sleep less,” Burke explains.
It’s important to remember, however, that there are varying degrees of how people are affected.
“SAD is harder to spot than profound depression, so look out for personality changes in people,” advises Eugene Farrell, chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association. “This is where the role of line managers is important as they are best-placed to noticed if employees aren’t joining is like they used to, lack focus, have started making errors in their work or their relationships with co-workers are suffering.”
There are a number of ways employers can help staff who are struggling with SAD.
Employee Assistance Programmes have mental health professionals available 24/7 so people can talk about how they are feeling. Additionally, Private Medical Insurance may cover counselling or psychotherapy, such as CBT.
Often small changes can make a big difference. Helpful adjustments could be flexible working to maximise the amount of time people can have the benefit of daylight hours. For example, allowing employees to work flexibly gives them a chance to go out for a walk in the daylight, while lightboxes may also be useful for those who can’t get out in the daytime. Even moving a desk to somewhere with more light could be beneficial.
There are also a plethora of apps available that can help with sleep management, mood monitoring and mindfulness.
“It is very important for businesses to treat all their people as individuals. If someone is suffering with SAD, it is unlikely that their experience will be the same as someone else’s,” advises Clark.
Line managers are most likely the first to notice a change in one of their team and so supporting them to be able to support their people in whatever way is needed is essential, she says.
“Educating everyone on SAD is also important so that people can recognise it for themselves and know what might help or where to get reliable, credible information.”
Christine Husbands, managing director, RedArc, advises organisations to monitor the success of any initiatives.
“Employers should ask for feedback from their employees and a good quality support service will be able to provide anonymised employee utilisation data, quality ratings and feedback,” she says.
A culture of kindness
Suff believes that if an organisation already has in place a supportive and compassionate culture around mental health, it will be much easier for any employees experiencing SAD to talk to their manager and/or HR if they need support or adjustments to their work.
She says: “Organisations should plan activities that promote good wellbeing, such as encouraging employees to go outdoors at lunchtime to make the most of the natural light, as well as promoting social networks, healthy eating, and a good work-life balance. They should also signpost to any mental health support available, such as counselling and/or an employee assistance programme.”
According to Burke, it’s really important to create a workplace where people can have open and honest conversations and discuss the issues they’re facing.
“We encourage colleagues to speak to their line manager or if they prefer, a Mind Ally. We’re working hard to create a mentally healthy culture and encourage everyone to be open when talking about their mental wellbeing, just as they might their physical health,” he says.
SAD is a real issue, but unfortunately one that is not well recognised, Burke adds.
“Some people might just think they are a bit off or not quite themselves, but if the cause isn’t identified and action taken, it could lead to further issues,” he explains. “Employers have a responsibility to look after and support their people and creating a culture of openness and respect is good for employees, for our business and for our customers.”
Taking positive action is also good for business, according to Farrell.
He concludes: “For employers, establishing a culture of wellbeing can help them become an employer of choice. By not doing so they just become bad employers, and that’s bad for business. Good employers care about their people, as well as their business. Can they afford not to?”