Diversity & Inclusion

Don’t Be in the Dark: What to Know About Accommodating SAD Employees

Ah, fall—cooler temperatures, vibrant leaves, and football. Unfortunately, the dreaded end to daylight saving time also arrives not long after we welcome fall, signaling shorter days and dark drives home from work. For many of us, the transition to fall is often a pleasant change of pace from a long, hot summer. However, for some people, the beginning of fall and the inevitable time change prompts the onset of a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is SAD?

SAD is a type of depression, not a separate disorder, that affects individuals on a seasonal basis. The depression generally starts in late fall or early winter and dissipates in the spring. Some individuals also suffer from SAD in the summer months, although that’s rare.

The National Institute of Mental Health’s website indicates the symptoms of SAD associated with the onset of winter include low energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain, craving carbohydrates, and social withdrawal. Individuals diagnosed with SAD must meet the criteria for depression, and it must coincide with specific seasons for at least two years.

The cause of SAD is unknown, but it’s often attributed to an imbalance of melatonin and serotonin in the brain, as well as Vitamin D deficiency due to less exposure to sunlight during the winter season.

Treatment for SAD usually includes medication and light therapy, which is daily exposure to bright artificial lights called light boxes. The artificial light supplements the diminished daylight that occurs during the fall and winter.

SAD is more than just the winter blues, and it should be taken seriously. In fact, employees who suffer from SAD may have a disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and they could be entitled to an accommodation.

Avoiding Discrimination Claims

If an employee requests an accommodation for his SAD, you have the option of making a disability determination before granting the requested accommodation. The ADA doesn’t list every medical condition that qualifies as a disability. Rather, a person’s medical condition must meet the definition of disability provided under the ADA: a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) suggests that when making your determination, you consider the following factors:

  • How limited the employee would be without any mitigating measures;
  • How limited the employee is when the impairment is active; and
  • The condition, manner, or duration in which the employee performs a major life activity.

Ways to Accommodate

A reasonable accommodation is a change to the work environment that will help an employee perform the duties of her job. JAN suggests the following light products as accommodations for employees with SAD:

  • Light boxes, which are rectangular light fixtures that produce around 10,000 lux of fluorescent light and come in several sizes and styles;
  • Light visors, which are head-mounted light sources and are a good choice for people who need to be mobile during the day;
  • Desk lamps, which resemble typical office lamps; and
  • Dawn simulators, which mimic the natural rising of the sun by gradually brightening rooms over programmed periods of time.

Other possible accommodations include:

  • Moving the employee’s office or workspace to an area with increased sun exposure (e.g., near windows);
  • Allowing the employee to take breaks outside;
  • Modifying the employee’s schedule; and
  • Allowing the employee to take some time off to receive treatment.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, you are the decision maker when it comes to processing accommodation requests made by employees. But remember, the definition of a disability is broad, and it does include SAD. Even if you have some reservations about an employee’s SAD, it’s advisable to err on the side of caution and process his accommodation request to avoid a potential discrimination claim.

Cassandra Forbes is an Associate at Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC and contributes to the West Virginia Employment Law Letter. She can be contacted at cassandra.forbes@steptoe-johnson.com.