What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
We have all heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD), or ‘winter depression’ and may think that sufferers just don’t like going outside on a cold grey day. But Seasonal Affective Disorder is much more complicated than that.
We all know someone who seems to be a bit down during the winter months or has no interest in joining social activities that they would enjoy at any other time of the year. Although symptoms are usually more severe during winter months, SAD can occur at any time of year. According to the mental health charity MIND, SAD is a “type of depression that you experience during particular seasons or times of year.”
What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Because SAD is a type of depression, the symptoms are the same. However, the main difference is that they happen every year at roughly the same time. Typically, symptoms start to appear in the autumn or early winter and improve once spring arrives. Signs that you, a friend, or colleague may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder are:
- No interest in normal activities
- Becoming reclusive or less sociable
- Being irritable
- Feelings of worthlessness, despair, or guilt
- Low self-esteem
- A persistent low mood which cannot be shaken off or dismissed
- Bouts of tearfulness
- Anxiety or feelings of stress
- Reduced sex drive
The severity of SAD symptoms can vary greatly from one person to another. For some people, the effect on their daily lives is minimal, whilst others experience a significant impact on normal everyday activities.
In addition to the signs of depression, some SAD sufferers may experience:
- Periods of manic or excessively energetic/happy moods
- Difficulty getting up in the morning
- Sleeping for longer periods than normal and feeling sleepy during the day
- Difficulty in concentrating or maintaining concentration
- Food cravings/hunger, especially carbohydrates
- Weight gain
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Although the exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, it is believed to be the reduced levels of exposure to sunlight during the winter months. It is thought that this lack of sunlight may stop the hypothalamus in the brain from working properly resulting in a change in the production of certain hormones:
- Higher levels than normal of melatonin, which will make sufferers feel sleepy
- Lower levels than normal of serotonin, which will affect mood, appetite, and sleep
- Disruption of the body clock (circadian rhythm), because of lower levels of light
There have also been example of SAD running in families, so some people may be more genetically prone to experiencing symptoms than others.
Self-care for Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are a number of treatments available for SAD from antidepressants to cognitive behaviour therapy, and a GP may prescribe a combination of these depending on the severity of the symptoms. However, If you think you are suffering from SAD, there are certain things you can do yourself to help the condition by boosting your exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of autumn and winter, which will help to reduce the production of melatonin and increase the production of serotonin:
- Make sure you get as much natural light as possible both at home and at work
- Go for a walk during your lunch break – both the exercise and the daylight exposure will help
- Make sure you sit near a window when you are inside
- Establish a daily exercise routine, preferably outdoors
- Eat a balanced diet to avoid carbohydrate cravings
- Take steps to manage your stress levels
- Talk to family and friends, so they understand how SAD affects you and can offer effective support
- Light therapy or phototherapy – sitting by a light box for 30-60 minutes every morning simulates the extra sunlight missing from shorter days (N.B. This may not be a suitable treatment for those with eyes sensitive to light or if you take medication that can make you more sensitive to light)
- Find some support: Space2BHeard provides high quality counselling, psychotherapy, and wellbeing services to residents of Hull and the East Riding
Seasonal Affective Disorder in the workplace
According to Patient.info, up to 6% of adults have ‘recurrent major depressive episodes with seasonal pattern’. SAD is also four times as common in women than men aged 18-44 (or during their reproductive years.) It is, therefore, highly likely that you have a work colleague or employee suffering from SAD.
The effects of having employees with SAD can mean an increase in absence levels and, therefore, a corresponding drop in productivity. Those suffering from the disorder may find it difficult to get to work on time and once there, they lack the energy levels to perform tasks to the best of their ability. This can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the team, who have to take up the extra work, which can lead to a drop in morale and a negative atmosphere caused by increasing resentment.
There are some steps you can take to make sure that employees with SAD can feel supported in the workplace.
You need to ensure your company culture is open and supportive. Having a company culture that prioritises mental wellbeing alongside physical wellbeing will take away the stigma often associated with mental health issues. Communication is key because people who feel supported in their working environment feel less anxious. Asking how people feel and actually listening to their answer encourages them to open up about their mental wellbeing, so you can understand their concerns and difficulties. SAD is a form of depression, so raising awareness of it by promoting available services can help sufferers to seek advice and help from the right sources. Although SAD only affects people seasonally, making sure your company focuses on both mental and physical health all year round will have a positive effect on your employees and your business.
More practical considerations are:
- Changing the design of your workspace to take advantage of natural light
- Replacing yellow or poor lighting with brighter, whiter lights
- Encouraging exercise or outdoor activities during lunch breaks
- Hold meetings outside when the weather permits
- Flexible working hours or shift patterns to allow sufferers more access to daylight
- Talk to a provider like Space2BHeard about the counselling options available to meet the needs of your workforce wellbeing
At Space2BHeard, we have a wide range of experience working for a number of different partners in Hull and the East Riding. Thanks to our NHS approved management systems and staffing structure we are able to respond quickly, safely, and effectively to our partners’ and clients’ needs. Our experienced team understand the impact of mental health issues in the workplace, on both the employee and employer. It can be challenging for businesses to offer effective support to someone who is struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder or other forms of depression, so we have developed a number of different products that can be purchased to suit the needs of companies in Hull and the East Riding. Contact us today to discuss the needs of your organisation and the options available to support mental wellbeing in the workplace.