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Countering SAD - the real ‘winter blues’

As the days draw ever shorter, one to three per cent of the population will suffer from the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a debilitating condition that can prevent sufferers from functioning at their best, reducing their level of concentration to the point that they can have difficulty performing at work or at home.

Doug Sawers, Managing Director of Ceridian in the UK, commented:

Real winter blues is set to strike a section of the working population. Typically, symptoms for SAD begin in late autumn and are most prominent in December, January and February and recede in the spring months. SAD can translate itself into listlessness and depressive thoughts resulting in decreased productivity, 'presenteeism', increased absenteeism and rising disability claims. HR departments should be pro-active in providing assistance. With education, an awareness of the symptoms and early treatment, those living with SAD can lead productive lives while making valuable contributions at work.Doug Sawers

What is SAD?

SAD is thought to be related to seasonal variations in light. Decreasing hours of sunlight brought on by the changing season puts sufferers out of step with their circadian rhythms, or daily schedules. Research has also shown that neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain that help regulate sleep, mood and appetite, may be disturbed in SAD sufferers.

Who suffers from SAD?

It can occur in children and teenagers but most frequently affects individuals over the age of 20 entering their prime working years. SAD is more common in women than men, in residents of northern countries and can particularly trouble shift workers. Two consecutive winters of depressive signs lead clinicians to a diagnosis of SAD.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Symptoms of SAD include increased sleep, increased appetite, intense cravings for carbohydrates/sweets and weight gain.

Six ways HR can minimise the impact of SAD at work:

  1. Be informed. Read about SAD and other mood disorders and share with management. Useful websites include Mind (http://www.mind.org.uk), Mental Health Foundation (http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk) and the National Institute for Mental Health in England (http://www.nimhe.org.uk).
  2. Enlist the support of an EAP provider. Companies with an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) should promote the usefulness of the confidential consultations, community resources and helpful support materials on offer.
  3. Help reduce stigma. Posters, brochures and general education on the subject can encourage sufferers to seek help. Many would otherwise resist as they would fear for their jobs or career progression, and be seen as weak.
  4. Review benefits and policies. Ensure there is adequate support for mental health concerns. Determine if company policies cover the provision of a light box, a common treatment for SAD, which can result in improvements among 60 to 70 per cent of sufferers. Examine company policies in general to ensure they cover the needs of employees suffering from a mental health issue.
  5. Address employee performance issues. Discuss observed changes in behaviour and performance-related concerns. Ask how the company can help, recommend the sufferer visits their family doctor and let them know what other help is available.
  6. Organise outdoor lunchtime activities. SAD sufferers need exposureto valuable natural light, which peaks around lunchtime, the perfect time to organise outdoor activities to help them benefit from exposure to natural light.
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