As we head into winter, a common complaint of workers is something that — at first glance — may seem like a case of the blues. What some confuse as general malaise about the weather, however, could be a medically-recognized form of depression, specific to certain times of the year. Learn more about this potentially disruptive condition and see what your workplace can do to prioritize seasonal affective disorder prevention.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Once referred to as the winter "blahs," SAD is now understood to be an important indicator of health in the workplace. We know more about how weather — particularly lack of sunlight — can play into the moods and energy levels of otherwise healthy humans. This type of depression can be significant for office workers who might not sit near windows and avoid going outside during the harshest winter conditions.
For regions of the United States that are further north (and away from the equator), shorter days mean less opportunity to soak up the sun. It's not uncommon for employees in the far northern regions to leave work at 5 p.m. and see the sun already going down. Symptoms of the condition vary by person, but they generally start (and then increase) during the fall and winter months and include:
- Consistent depression
- Low energy
- Weight or appetite changes
- Irritability and difficulty concentrating
- A general feeling of disinterest
- Negative thoughts, hopelessness and guilt
It can be difficult to recognize these symptoms in someone who isn't open about them. Encouraging a culture of communication and trust in your office is one of the best ways to get people to share that they are dealing with any depression – including SAD.
How To Prevent It
While professional help is recommended for anyone who struggles with stress or depression, there are some things that a manager can do to make the environment better for those with SAD (and all workers). Consider making these year-round changes to your office:
- Give Access to Natural Light: When an office with a window isn't something you can give everyone, allow access to conference rooms or break areas where light can come in. For interior offices, consider how outside break spaces can be incorporated into the daily routine.
- Provide Therapeutic Lights Free of Charge: While light therapy boxes used to be available only from specialty retailers at a high price, you can now buy them at most drug stores year-round. See if you can reimburse for personal desk-sized lights as part of the employee health benefits program. Many lights can be paid for with employee Health Savings Accounts. You may also consider lending shared lights from the office supply room since they only need to be used for a portion of the day.
- Get Workers Moving: Walks around the building, when the weather is tolerable, is an ideal way to get natural light and encourage cardiovascular health. Even a cloud-covered day offers the benefits of vitamin D! If the weather doesn't cooperate, a desk bike can provide exercise. Paired with the therapy light, it's the next best thing to a bike ride outdoors — and employees won't have to clock out for a break to enjoy it.
As businesses become more aware of the importance of health in the workplace, it makes sense to add seasonal affective disorder prevention to their list of initiatives. For those companies who don't already have a plan in place, it's best to start now. With remedies being more affordable than ever, there's no benefit in waiting until workers show signs of distress.