More than just ‘Winter Blues’
Do you feel down during the winter months? The days are shorter, the holidays have ended, and the weather can be unpredictable and gloomy. It’s relatively common to be affected, but for some, it can be far more debilitating. With the emerging focus and recognition of a global mental health crisis, it’s critical to identify the factors that may be taking a toll on our workplaces.
Known clinically as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of recurring depression that arises from seasonal changes and weather fluctuations. According to the Canadian Psychological Association1, as many as 15% of Canadians report feeling mild seasonal depression, while 2-3% make up more serious cases. For many, symptoms begin in the early winter months and subside in the spring or summer.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is much more than the ‘winter blues’ and is recognized as a persistent mental health issue. Symptoms can include:
- Persistent fatigue and oversleeping.
- Body aches and stiff joints.
- Digestive problems.
- Difficulty with concentration and memory.
- Feelings of hopelessness, frustration, pessimism, and guilt.
- Lack of interest and fulfillment from work or hobbies.
- Changes in appetite such as weight gain.
- Social withdrawal.
Causes and Risk Factors
Most studies agree that shorter days and lack of sunlight are significant contributors to winter cases of SAD, but why? Firstly, the human body needs the sun for Vitamin D production, whose deficiencies cause symptoms such as fatigue, aches and pains, a weakened immune system, and depression.
However, the findings of a key study2 showed that the amount of light we perceive, organic or artificial, may also have a direct impact on brain chemistry:
- Daily access to bright light during the day is critical to the function of our circadian rhythm, or our biological clock.
- Bright light may directly impact our production of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that influence satisfaction and happiness.
Some people are more at risk for seasonal depression than others, such as individuals who…
- Already struggle with mental health problems such as Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, as it can exacerbate the symptoms.
- Are residing farther north or south of the equator, who experience shorter days in the winter.
- Are typically younger, as prevalence appears to decline with age.
- Have a sedentary lifestyle or a carbohydrate-rich diet.
Impact on the Workplace
Seasonal Depression can directly impact a person’s fulfillment, concentration, and outlook on life. An employee’s happiness, work relationships, team culture, and productivity can all severely decline as a result. It is in the employer’s best interest to take any mental health risk seriously.
As an employer, consider that fear of judgement and misunderstanding are barriers people face when dealing with mental health problems. An employee may not be willing to discuss how they feel or that they’re struggling in the workplace, but it’s important they know that issues impacting their wellbeing will be taken seriously. They also may not recognize that they themselves are impacted by SAD or downplay their feelings.
Identifying if someone is experiencing symptoms of depression can be difficult, but some common trends are easy to spot:
- Decreased productivity.
- Uncharacteristic mood fluctuations.
- Overworking themselves.
- Missing deadlines.
- Consistent fatigue.
- Lack of emotional expression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder does not have a cure, but there are ways to mitigate the impact. Because of its relative predictability, taking steps as a precaution can make a huge difference.
Combatting Seasonal Depression
For employers who are concerned about the wellbeing of their team, or want to take preventative action, here are some tips to help fight seasonal depression in the workplace. Openly acknowledging SAD and any factors impeding employee wellbeing helps to bolster trust and faith in your organization.
- Make sure your work environment is well lit.
- Regularly check in on your team and ask how they’re doing.
- Give positive feedback on contributions they’ve made.
- Regularly host engagement activities and meetings.
- Encourage outdoor walks or breaks, or indoor physical activities like stretching.
- Rearrange the work environment to increase outdoor visibility as much as possible.
- Look into accessibility options, such as flexible hours or stipends.
- Refresh yourself on your company’s policies and procedures.
- Educate your employees on your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and possible accommodations.
If you are personally experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the following tips may help. Remember to talk to your healthcare provider about which treatments may be best for you.
- Spend time outdoors if the weather permits, such as taking regular walks.
- Keep your curtains open during the day.
- Set daily routines to follow.
- Take vitamin D supplements.
- Eat lower-carbohydrate foods.
- Exercise regularly, which can alleviate stress and release dopamine.
- Use light therapy through exposure to bright artificial light.
- Seek mental health services, such as therapy.
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If you or someone you know is struggling or having thoughts of suicide, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Helpline by dialing 9-8-8, or visit https://988.ca.
1Canadian Psychological Association, “Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: Seasonal Affective Disorder (Depression with Seasonal Pattern). 2020 Dec 31.
2Lambert GW, Reid C, Kaye DM, Jennings GL, Esler MD. Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain. Lancet. 2002 Dec 7;360(9348):1840-2. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(02)11737-5. PMID: 12480364.