Legal Q&A: Seasonal Affective Disorder

HR departments may soon have to deal with more absence and lateness problems as the days get shorter and the nights get colder. In many cases, this may be down to a reluctance to get out of bed or leave the house to face the cold. However, it could also be due to a disabling condition that is now estimated to affect up to half a million people in the UK.

Q Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) a ‘real’ condition, or just something that has been used as an excuse?

A SAD is a particular type of depressive illness that affects people every winter, peaking during the months of December, January and February.

It is a medically recognised mood disorder that doctors attribute to a chemical imbalance in the body that has been caused by the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.

Q How do we know that someone is suffering from SAD?

A You will have to obtain medical evidence to establish if the employee is suffering from this particular condition. However, one tell-tale sign of SAD is if the employee has a much better attendance record during the summer than during the winter. Some sufferers even show signs of hyperactivity during the summer months, and then work very slowly during the winter period.

Typical symptoms to look out for include tiredness, lethargy, sleep and eating problems, depression and anxiety. For many people, SAD is a seriously disabling illness, preventing them from functioning normally without continuous medical treatment. For others, it is a mild but debilitating condition causing discomfort, but not severe suffering. This would more commonly be referred to as ‘winter blues’.

Q Can we discipline employees regarding their absence record if they suffer from SAD?

A Employers are entitled to set an acceptable attendance level and to take reasonable action to ensure that employees meet the attendance requirements. This will usually mean that the employees are given warnings about their attendance levels and informed that if there is no improvement, they will ultimately be dismissed.

However, if the employee suffers from a disability, the normal policies may have to be changed, as there is a duty to make reasonable adjustments so the disabled employee does not face a disadvantage because of their disability.

Q Can employees who suffer from SAD be deemed disabled under the disability discrimination provisions?

A The impact of the condition on an individual does vary a lot. Some employees will be so seriously affected that they will have the protection of the Disability Discrimination Act. To establish whether the individual is ‘disabled’, it will be necessary to establish whether there is a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

It may be argued that SAD will never meet the definition of being ‘long term’ as it is limited to the winter months, and long term generally means at least 12 months. However, where a condition is recurrent, it is treated as long term if it is likely to recur. Therefore, it may still be the case that this will amount to a disability.

Q If they are disabled, what reasonable adjustments could we make?

A We are stuck with the climate, but there may still be changes you can put in place that would make it easier for the employee to attend work.

According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, light therapy is one option that should be explored. This has been shown to be effective in up to 85% of diagnosed cases. It involves the employee sitting two to three feet away from a specially designed light box, usually on a table, allowing the light to shine directly through the eyes. The user can carry out normal activity such as reading and working, while stationary in front of the box. It is not necessary to stare at the light although it has been proved safe. Treatment is usually effective within three or four days, and the effect continues provided it is used every day. Light boxes are available from specialist retailers at a cost of about £100.

Other treatments include particular anti-depressant medication and, in some cases, counselling. If this is necessary, then it would be a reasonable adjustment to allow the employee time off to attend treatment.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Association

Guy Guinan, employment partner, Halliwells



  1. What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? - Winter Time Depression - 6 Apr 2017

    […] It may also be worth noting that if SAD is severe enough, it can qualify as a disability, and in such cases there is a duty to make reasonable adjustments so the disabled employee does not face a disadvantage because of their disability. For the legal aspects of SAD as a disability, please refer to this article. […]