Seasonal affective disorder: How to support staff through the winter

Light therapy provided by SAD lamps can help alleviate symptoms.
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Seasonal affective disorder is more common than any other mental health issue during the winter months and can significantly affect employees’ day-to-day activities. As we approach the shortest day of the year, Simon Blake explains how occupational health practitioners can support staff experiencing the condition.

As the days get shorter and colder many people find themselves leaving and returning to work in the dark. For some employees, the cosy nights in the run up to the festive period are enough to keep spirits high. But for others, the lack of sunlight can trigger or exacerbate mental ill health, especially for those who are prone to experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Common symptoms of SAD include a persistent low mood, a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, irritability, and feeling lethargic during the day. According to the NHS, SAD affects one in 15 people, and for some, the symptoms can be severe enough to significantly impact their day-to-day activities, including their job role.

As you might expect, SAD is more common than other mental health issues in the winter. It is therefore especially important that occupational health practitioners encourage safe working practices, support health promotion, and signpost people to appropriate services if needed. In addition to their usual duty of care, there are a number of simple steps that occupational health teams can take to support the mental health and wellbeing of employees throughout the winter period.

Encourage employees to get some sunlight

The lack of sunlight during autumn and winter is thought to limit the amount of serotonin that the brain produces, which can lower our mood. It can also impact our sleeping pattern as lower light levels can disrupt our internal body clock.

Consider making adjustments to the working environment to ensure that employees are exposed to as much sunlight as possible during the day. Depending on the workplace, you may be able to make the space lighter and airier; for example, opening blinds and curtains where possible.

It is also a good idea to provide SAD lamps if your office is particularly dark. The bright light can affect levels of hormones and neurochemicals, positively impacting our mood. In addition, fresh air and daylight can help boost energy levels, so employees should be reminded to utilise nearby outdoor spaces for lunches or breaks.

Highlight the importance of ‘real’ downtime

It is important for occupational health practitioners to encourage employees to set aside regular downtime where they are not distracted by their work.

CIPD research shows almost a quarter (23%) of workers in the UK struggle to book time off, and those that do may suffer from “leaveism”. This can result in employees being unable to tune-out, and so they might continue to work whilst on leave in order to catch up with outstanding tasks, or even cancel their annual leave at the last minute.

The antidote here is a working culture where work is one part of a balanced life, and it is up to every leader to model this. The concept of ‘work-life’ balance – where we live two lives – is fast becoming an anachronism.

Encourage employees to address their stress

Employees who suffer from SAD or other mental health issues may experience a decline in their resilience to dealing with stress. Positive emotions can build up a buffer against stress and even lead to lasting changes in the brain to help maintain good mental health and wellbeing.

In order to promote this, occupational health practitioners should encourage and support employees to explore different self-care activities that can lift their mood. Activities could include trying a new hobby, setting positive realistic goals, or developing a regular exercise routine.

Educate employees on mental health and wellbeing

Educating employees on how to look after their own health and wellbeing is key to supporting and preventing mental ill health during the winter and all year round. Although society’s attitude towards mental ill health has shifted dramatically in recent years, stigma still exists, and for so many people mental illness is still synonymous with weakness, shame and guilt.

Encouraging “lunch and learn” sessions or webinars are a great way for us to educate each other about how to look after our own and others’ mental health, and also to raise awareness of the support available. Public Health England’s Every Mind Matters tool provides a great starting point for this kind of activity.

It might seem a little daunting to start a conversation about mental health, but sessions like this can help to break stigma, normalise discussion around mental health, and empower people to understand pathways to further support.

Make eating well easier

Our physical and mental health is connected, so when we eat nutritious food it can help boost our mood and improve our mental wellbeing. In the darker and colder months, it can be tempting to indulge in too much coffee and foods high in sugar, such as biscuits and chocolate.

Employees who suffer from SAD or other mental health issues may experience a decline in their resilience to dealing with stress.”

Make sure your employees and colleagues are aware that overdoing it on sugar, caffeine, or alcohol over the winter and festive period can lead to lower mood in the long term. Providing employees with healthy snacks such as fruit, yogurt or mixed nuts can help them to maintain a balanced diet.

Further support

Making small changes in the workplace can help support people who might be experiencing the symptoms of SAD or other mental health issues during the winter months.

If an employee feels like they are struggling to cope this winter or at any other time of the year, then encourage them to speak to you, another member of the occupational health team, or a trained mental health first aider, as they will be able to signpost them to further appropriate support.

Free support is also available through helplines such as SANEline (0300 304 7000). In a crisis, NHS emergency services can be contacted anytime on 999 or the Samaritans on 116 123.

Simon Blake

About Simon Blake

Simon Blake is the chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, which offers expert workplace guidance and training to support mental health.
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