The nights are drawing in and next summer is half a year away. For many of us this means misery: seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can affect as many as one in three people.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

It is more than the “winter blues” or a general feeling of sadness — it’s a major depressive disorder brought about by the lengthening periods of darkness.

It causes lethargy, low energy, difficulty waking up in the mornings and decreased concentration. It’s an issue that can have drastic effects on productivity in the winter months.

How common is seasonal affective disorder?

That is dependent on a variety of factors. But, in the UK and Ireland, it is thought to affect as many as one in three people. It’s likely someone you know in the workplace is beginning to struggle with it.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Broadly, SAD has the same outward signs as depression:

  • persistent low mood

  • loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities

  • irritability

  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness

  • low self-esteem

  • feeling stressed or anxious

  • reduced sex drive

  • becoming less sociable.

There are some SAD-specific signs, though, as follows.

  • feeling less active than normal

  • lethargy and sleepiness throughout the day

  • difficulty concentrating

  • an increased appetite, particularly for carbohydrates, which can cause weight gain.

What are the risk factors for seasonal affective disorder?

There are some common, easily recognisable risk factors for seasonal affective disorder.

  • Women are more likely to suffer from SAD — in fact, they are four times more likely to suffer than men.

  • It is more common in everyone the further you get from the equator; the lower hours of sunlight are a big contributor.

  • People with a family history of depression are more likely to develop SAD.

  • You are more likely to first develop the disorder in younger life. It has even been reported in children.

The most significant and obvious difference between depression and seasonal affective disorder is that SAD is linked to the changing seasons, whereas depression is year-round.

Luckily there are ways to help with SAD that don’t work with “ordinary” depression.

How to help with seasonal affective disorder

There are some quick and easy ways to make the workplace more manageable for people who suffer from serious winter depression.

  • Provide more light: offices can become rather dark and dreary when the sun starts setting earlier. Some employees may be seated at desks or in cubicles situated far from the nearest source of natural light. Try rearranging your floor plan to maximise the natural light available and consider moving people suffering from SAD closer to windows.

  • Provide even more light: a lot of people suffering from SAD benefit greatly from a SAD lamp or lightbox, a form of light therapy that uses fluorescent lights to simulate the natural sun.

  • Encourage more outdoor time: employees should be taking lunch away from their desks in all offices — it helps clear the mind and means people are ready to attack the afternoon’s tasks afresh. Encourage your staff to go further than the kitchen. Assuming the winter weather isn’t too harsh, lunchtime can be well spent going for a quick walk around the block. It’s about getting as much sunlight and positivity into the workday as possible. Consider short outdoor meetings and coffee runs.

  • Help out with health: SAD can wreak havoc on the appetite, causing weight gain, which can make the associated depression harder to deal with. Provide healthier snacking options and hot drink options, such as diet drinks and soups and herbal teas.

Help and advice

Health Assured has trained advisors and counsellors on-hand 24/7, 365 days a year to help your organisation, giving you the tools to increase wellbeing and productivity — whatever the weather. Telephone 0844 891 0350.

Last reviewed 21 November 2019