Press Association piece: How to support employees with seasonal affective disorder this winter
By Katie Wright, PA
10:00 - 27 Oct 2023
We were proud to be featured in this article by Katie Write from The Press Association on how to support employees with seasonal affective disorder this winter:
For some people, there’s lots to look forward to about this time of year, from the golden leaves lighting up the trees to cosy nights curled up watching Strictly.
For others, the change of seasons can bring about a significant shift in their mental health – due to seasonal affective disorder. This in turn can have a knock-on effect at work – so it’s important for managers to be aware of the impact, and how to support employees affected.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
“Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is typically characterised by a persistent low mood that can’t be shaken during the winter months,” says Gosia Bowling, BABCP accredited cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and national lead for mental health at Nuffield Health.
“Overall wellbeing can be impacted, as well as a loss of interest in daily activities and hobbies, excessive sleep and craving certain food groups like carbohydrates.”
Believed to affect around one in 15 people in the UK, symptoms can vary, and may be more severe for those with existing mental health conditions.
“Lowered mood, difficulty concentrating, lethargy and loss of interest may reduce motivation and engagement in work, undermining task performance,” says clinical psychologist Dr Felicity Baker, co-founder of workplace wellbeing solutions provider Ultimate Resilience.
“SAD may also lead to presenteeism, where people remain in work but with reduced productivity due to feeling unwell.”
What causes SAD?
While the exact cause of SAD isn’t known, researchers believe a lack of sunlight during the darker months is the main contributing factor.
“Reduced exposure to sunlight is thought to affect a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, altering levels of melatonin and serotonin,” Baker explains. “Scientists suggest that people with SAD produce higher than normal levels of melatonin, causing tiredness and lethargy. Conversely, serotonin levels drop, contributing to low mood, overeating and weight gain.”
As with many wellbeing issues, tackling SAD often benefits from a holistic approach, particularly in the workplace.
Julie-Ann Keeble, HR director at LHH UK&I, says: “Employers and team leads who ignore mental health issues may then be left with issues such as increased resignations, demotivated staff, and a reduction in business success.”
How to support employees with seasonal affective disorder this winter: Start the conversation
Keeble adds: “Creating conversations and sharing lived experiences can help with maintaining mental health, and this should carry into the workplace. Therefore, it’s crucial that team leaders and line managers dig deeper and promote a work environment where their teams are comfortable to open up and seek support.”
Signposting mental health information and resources will be enough for some staff, while others may need regular wellness checks. Baker says: “These meetings provide space to address work challenges and ensure employees feel understood and supported.”
Instead of simply asking, ‘How are you?’, Keeble suggests questions like, ‘What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?’ or ‘What can I do to support you better?’ in order to help employees articulate how they’re feeling.
Exercise and outdoor activities
When a staff member’s morning or evening commutes – or even both – are in darkness, finding time to get outdoors during the day is key.
“Encouraging employees to find time to get outside during the day is crucial for getting much needed exposure to sunlight,” says Bowling. “Where possible, employers could encourage walking meetings, short breaks and ensure colleagues utilise their lunch hour.”
Similarly, exercise (whether indoors or out) can be a powerful tool for alleviating low mood. Nuffield Health’s full Healthier Nation Index 2023 found that 67% of people believe exercise helps to lower stress and anxiety, with 35% of employees wanting more support from their employer to do more exercise.
Bowling suggests: “When possible, employers should help colleagues to get active, whether it’s a cycle to work scheme, subsided gym membership, or getting the team together to do an activity.”
Promote work-life balance
Baker says: “Self-care is essential for mental wellbeing, but can be difficult to prioritise at work. It is crucial that managers set an example by modelling good self-care practices, and that they support employees to take regular breaks and develop effective time and workload management strategies.”
Social connection is also an important factor in managing SAD, she adds: “Set clear boundaries around work so that space and time for family and hobbies is protected.”
Keeble agrees business leaders should set a good example in terms of maintaining healthy work-life boundaries: “For instance, ensuring their employees take time to ‘switch off’ on weekends and annual leave by not checking work emails.”
Training for managers
Baker adds: “With increasing awareness of mental health in the workplace, there is now a greater expectation that leaders demonstrate good people skills. However, many managers lack the emotional and social intelligence skills they need to support employees suffering from SAD and other mental health issues.”
Appropriate training for managers is “vital for businesses”, says Bowling: “Acknowledging key awareness days and events are good first steps in creating a supportive work environment, especially in the winter months where people may be more prone to SAD.”