When the shorter days and gloom of winter sets in, it can be a real challenge to go to work, especially when you just don’t feel up to it. Some people are affected more than others with winter depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
According to the American Psychiatric Association, an average of 5 percent of the U.S. population suffers from SAD, with another 14 percent suffering from milder “winter blues.” Symptoms can drastically affect all aspects of life, including your productivity and focus at work, relationships with your co-workers and boss.
SAD is believed to be the result of chemical imbalances that occur because of a decrease in sunlight exposure.
The Midwest and northern states are more likely to have employees suffering from SAD because the winter months in these regions tend to be even darker as a result of bad weather. The worst months are January and February when days are shortest, preventing natural sunlight from triggering functions in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This section is responsible for the production of serotonin and dopamine our “feel good” hormones, and melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep.
To combat SAD, it’s important to first recognize the common symptoms, which can include:
+ Mood: apathy, anxiety, irritability
+ Sleep: oversleeping or insomnia
+ Whole Body: fatigue and appetite changes that might result in weight gain or loss
+ Behavioral: social withdrawal and trouble with concentration and focus
Although more women are affected, men tend to experience symptoms more severely. Mild forms of SAD may produce minimal symptoms, but in more severe cases people may experience hopelessness or severe anxiety.
There are ways to head off or counteract the effects of SAD at home and work.
Get all the sunlight you can
One of the most effective ways to combat SAD is by increasing natural light exposure. Open blinds wide when the sun is shining, or even when it is mostly cloudy. Position your desk and chair at work to take in as much natural light as possible.
Invest in a light box
The problem with natural sunlight during the winter is it is not consistent. One method for treating SAD is light therapy, involving use of a lightbox to deliver bright light with UV filtering, simulating sunlight, to help stimulate the chemical regulation of hormones produced by the brain.
Skip the coffee in the breakroom and take a walk outside. Even when the air is chilly, if there is some sunshine, there are positive effects. Plus, there is the added benefit of activating endorphins, more feel-good hormones from exercising.
If you are already feeling blue, it might be tempting to reach for carb-loaded comfort foods such as a muffin, doughnuts or white bread for breakfast. While you might enjoy a short-term spike in serotonin, the “sugar crash” that follows at work may make you feel worse. Opt for a complex carb breakfast such as steel cut oatmeal (even a pre-packed carb-balance oatmeal is fine).
How employers can help
Companies should be aware that SAD is a real problem in the workplace, and communicate specific ways employees can receive help. Also, be supportive to employees seeking more sunshine, whether natural or from a lightbox, during the workday.
An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a good way to give employees options for many different issues, including mental wellness. Because employee productivity can be linked to SAD, it is in an employer’s interest to make sure SAD is covered.
An EAP can help provide employees with referrals, health insurance discounts, and numerous resources. Many organizations have EAPs with the health insurance providers chosen for employees, but availability of these programs is not always made widely known to employees. If a business offers access to an EAP, regular reminder memos should be distributed and any literature on a SAD program should be easily accessible.
Employees and employers joining forces to actively combat Seasonal Affective Disorder at work will enhance overall employee satisfaction, help maintain good health and enable higher productivity.