How to lessen the impact of seasonal affective disorder in the workplace

While there is the occasional exception (like Boston’s recent record-breaking 74-degree day), the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere are typically full of cold weather, short days, and little sunlight. These three factors can contribute to sadness, decreased energy, and stress, and even lead to a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

These feelings can have a noticeable impact on employee happiness and productivity. But, there are a few things employers can do to brighten up the workplace and help those dealing with this issue.

Signs and symptoms of SAD

Seasonal affective disorder affects an estimated 10 million Americans, with another 10-20% experiencing mild SAD, also known as the ‘winter blues.’ People suffering from SAD have several symptoms that can impact their performance and attitude in the workplace. These include:

  • Oversleeping and fatigue
  • Low energy throughout the day
  • Trouble focusing on and completing tasks
  • Social withdrawal and isolation

Ultimately, employees are responsible for seeking out treatment if they are suffering from SAD and other forms of depression. But, everyone benefits when their workplace is a happier, more accommodating place. If your employees seem to be less energetic and productive than usual, it could be time to try one or more of the following strategies for decreasing the winter blues.

5 ways employers can help

Recognizing that SAD and the winter blues are real issues that can be effectively treated is essential when it comes to helping employees successfully manage their depression. Here are some ways employers can make a difference for employees suffering from this seasonal disorder.

1. Increase exposure to sunlight

Research has shown that SAD is linked to a decrease in natural light, so providing opportunities for employees to get outside and soak up some sunshine can help. On days when the weather isn’t too cold or wet, encouraging outdoor walks can provide a needed dose of vitamin D.

If you know an employee is suffering from SAD, a helpful consideration might be to look for more sunny accommodations in their office space, like moving their work space or cubicle to a window or a spot with more natural light.

Bringing plants into the workplace can also help individuals suffering from SAD. Plants are proven stress relievers and productivity boosters that purify the air and create an environment with potentially 30% fewer sickness related absences.

2. Be flexible with employee schedules

It’s important that employees feel comfortable working with their managers to accommodate their mental health needs. By addressing problems before they become worse, employees will be healthier and more productive overall.

Examples of these accommodations might be:

  • Being flexible with shifts and work schedules
  • Allowing employees to work from home if appropriate
  • Approving time-off requests so employees can attend to their needs

3. Start an employee assistance program

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) can be helpful for any employee, including those suffering from SAD. These programs put employees in touch with counselors who offer support and resources to guide employees through issues like alcohol/substance abuse, financial worries, behavioral health concerns, and more.

An EAP counselor can help those with seasonal depression understand and manage their disorder. This can result in decreased absenteeism and employee turnover, reduced medical costs, and increased productivity.

If you don’t currently offer an EAP, it’s worth looking into the many other benefits they can offer your company and employees. And if you already have an EAP, it’s important to provide regular reminders about the program and its benefits so employees will know what resources are available.

4. Create a culture of wellness in the workplace

Creating a culture of wellness in the workplace can reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. A workplace that celebrates self-care makes it more likely that employees will speak up about their mental health when they require certain accommodations to reach their full potential. Wellness programs can also be beneficial when it comes to creating a happier, healthier workplace overall.

To improve workplace wellness and the conversation around mental health, employers can:

  • Promote any behavioral health services (including EAPs) available to employees
  • Start an awareness campaign to educate employees on common disorders
  • Create incentives for healthy activities, like step challenges with prizes
  • Offer healthy alternatives to the food or snacks offered in the workplace
  • Provide onsite access to exercise and gym equipment
  • Add some greenery with plants around the office

These are just some ideas for improving workplace wellness, but there are many other innovative and effective programs that can have a positive impact on your organization.

5. Get employees engaged with health plan programs

Employer-sponsored health plans can be a great source of help for people struggling with SAD and other disorders. Many health plans now offer programs designed to make care more affordable and easier to access. For example, AllWays Health Partners’ Care Complement benefit offers $0 member cost sharing for common prescription medications used to treat depression and other chronic conditions.

Employers can also check to see if their health plan provides online tools, like a resource directory or telemedicine/virtual therapy visits. In partnership with Optum, AllWays Health Partners offers online mental health resources, including virtual visits with a therapist who can evaluate and treat mental health conditions.

For busy employees or anyone who’d prefer to stay inside away from the cold winter weather, a virtual visit can help them get treatment inside the comfort of their homes. These options can also make it less overwhelming for employees to find and get professional help.

In general, the best thing employers can do to get people engaged with these programs is to make sure employees know they exist and know how to access them. Posting information around the workplace or sending periodic email reminders can help make the information accessible to employees while also normalizing the existence of mental health disorders.

By implementing some of these programs and ideas, employees will have an easier time keeping up productivity and working through the cold, dark winter months until spring comes around again.

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