Seasonal Affective Disorder in the Workplace

13th December 2021

(Updated 24 November 2022)

Seasonal Affective Disorder is often dismissed as ‘winter blues’ or a dislike for cold weather, but the serious implications it can have are forgotten.

It is thought that up to 3 in 100 people will suffer from SAD at some point in their lives. More and more people are being diagnosed, while awareness lags behind.

As an employer, it is important to support your staff where possible and SAD is no exception. So we’ve put together this post to clear up some of the misconceptions about the condition, and to give you as an employer some tips on how to support your staff when they face it.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is defined by the NHS  as ‘a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern.’

It is classed as recurrent major depressive disorder, and it is usually tied to winter months. It is thought to be related to the lack of natural sunlight and colder weather that comes with the season. Though it is sometimes referred to as ‘winter depression’ symptoms will often start in autumn and finally lessen until spring.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Like all mental health conditions, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can affect different people in different ways. However, there are common symptoms that many people share, which include:

  • Low mood and lack of energy: you might see employees struggle with their workload, being unable to complete tasks or not able to do them to their usual standard,
  • Inability to concentrate: another way to spot this is through tasks being unfinished as someone is unable to focus on tasks long enough to complete them,
  • A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities: often noticeable if someone withdraws from the more social aspects of work,
  • General irritability, or mood changes: this is usually in a negative way, so someone usually positive becoming pessimistic, or irritability making someone aggressive
  • Disruptions to natural circadian rhythm: when the body’s internal clock is disrupted this can lead to sleeping longer, struggling to get up, insomnia and day sleeping,
  • Gaining weight: lack of energy can lead to binge eating or bad diet decisions, including eating more sugary foods or carbs – it can also lead to less exercise and movement which will increase weight gain

Of course, many SAD symptoms overlap with the textbook symptoms of non-seasonal depression. This can make it difficult to diagnose, even for medical experts. Symptoms worsening during winter months is a key factor for diagnosis.

What is the impact of seasonal affective disorder at work?

A study by Deloitte in 2020 revealed that poor mental health is costing UK employers up to £45 billion each and every year. A combination of absences, sick pay and high staff turnover means that employers pay a high cost for failing to offer sufficient mental health support.

SAD may be seasonal, but it still comes under this umbrella. It can account for increased absence rates and sick pay costs. Known SAD sufferers will still face the same barriers to work, and need the same level of support.

The Impact Of Presenteeism

While absences, sickness pay and high staff turnover might seem severe enough consequences, they are not the only impacts you will see when the mental wellbeing of your employees suffers. One of the biggest financial losses that the Deloitte study identified was presenteeism, where staff attempt to work despite very low productivity as a result of ill health.

SAD sufferers struggle with low energy and a persistent low mood. This can affect their focus and in turn their productivity. So even if your staff struggle

You will struggle to concentrate for long periods and as result, your productivity will suffer. Even if you are able to work, the quality of what you produce will lessen significantly.

Low mood and irritability can also lead to workplace conflict. When you’re under so much stress already even a small knock or issue can feel like a majorly stressful event. Even people who usually try to avoid workplace conflict can end up taking this out on those around them.

How to support employees with Seasonal Affective Disorder

There is no guaranteed way to treat any mental health issue. Seasonal Affective Disorder is no different. However, the Deloitte study revealed that for every £1 spent on mental health interventions, £5 was made back by employers through reduced absences, presenteeism and staff turnover.

This means it is a great business idea to support your staff all year round, but during the cold weather months, it’s a good idea to set some extra measures in place. Here are a few tips on how you can support employee mental health in the workplace.

Allow flexible working

For many people, SAD will be linked to a lack of natural light.

During the colder months, most employees arrive before sunrise and return home after dark. This has health implications in itself, as lack of exposure to natural daylight can lead to Vitamin D deficiency. For SAD sufferers it can compound their issues.

One way to address this is to introduce flexible working. Being allowed an extended lunch break or early start-early finish will give workers a chance to get out and about in the natural daylight.

Taking regular breaks can also improve energy levels – yet another bonus for productivity and your employee’s health.

Provide Light Therapy Lamps

If flexible working isn’t possible in your business, you could consider providing special SAD lamps instead. These lamps replicate sunlight and can have short-term positive effects on sufferers of SAD.

Other things you can do to support your employee’s wellbeing include providing desks that are near windows to allow maximum natural sunlight exposure. Some employees may prefer to open windows to get fresh air as well.

Many people see light therapy as a quick hack to address SAD directly. However, as with all mental ill health, don’t expect a miracle treatment to alleviate symptoms immediately. A combination of all of these suggestions should be provided for your employees so that they can find the one that works for them.

light therapy lamp used for seasonal affective disorder s.a.d.

Actively Encourage Self Care

Different people will approach self-care in different ways, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. And trying to tell your employees what they should be doing outside of work could irritate your workforce and even increase the stress levels of those with SAD.

Try instead to remind employees of the self-care steps they can incorporate into their average working day to support mental health. Schedule regular breaks across teams. Encourage employees to leave their screens, and their seats, and take time to move and stretch throughout the day. These will benefit the physical and mental health of your whole team, not just those facing SAD.

Try to provide workers with a space where they can relax during these breaks. Create areas, ideally inside and out, where they can escape for just a few minutes to reset their thoughts.

The aforementioned stretch breaks might feel like they eat into valuable productivity time. However well-rested, motivated employees achieve a much higher quantity and quality of work, than tired, burned-out team members do.

Support Physical Health

We can’t emphasise enough how strong the link between employee mental health and physical health is. Introducing a new workout routine is never going to cure SAD or any other mental health issue. But it can have impressive benefits on general wellbeing.

It can also be hard for an employer to support, but it is possible. As well as introducing employee benefits such as discounted gym membership, healthy eating options as part of staff catering, another great idea is to set up sponsored sports teams.

Many people will find it easier to undertake a particular hobby or sport if it’s a full team commitment plus there is an added socialisation benefit to team sports that you won’t get from a lone workout.

Arrange Mental Health Training

Though it is increasingly common, not everyone will struggle with their own personal wellbeing or mental health. And without going through it firsthand, it can be difficult to understand.

Offering mental health training is an excellent way of raising awareness. Organisations such as Mental Health First Aid England can run in-house training and even qualify your employees to support each other through tough times.

Support all other mental health issues too

Chances are, if you’re looking for ways to help alleviate SAD for your employees, you’re keen to offer support for all mental health conditions. The number of diagnosed SAD cases pales in comparison to the proportion of the public who suffer from mental health problems overall.

All the things listed above will support the mental well-being of your whole team, not just those dealing with SAD. It’s not as hard as you might think.

Create a culture in the workplace where people can be honest about their mental health Promote the importance of a healthy work-life balance. Allow flexible working and reduce the significant costs of presenteeism.

A supportive, encouraging and understanding workplace is the one thing that many people facing mental health issues lack. Overcome this, and you will significantly lessen their burden.

Get help supporting your employees with Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s no easy task to support your employee’s wellbeing. It’s not easy, and it’s incredibly important. Not just for the health of your employees, but for the health of your business too.

You don’t need to take this fight on alone. Speak to one of our team about our Health And Wellbeing Programme to see how we can support you and your employees.


Request a callback

Tell us your name and number below and we'll give you a callback to discuss your requirements.

Request a callback