Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to changes in seasons, can have a significant impact on mental health and employees’ productivity and engagement. Not only can seasonal depression impact employee productivity, but it can also affect the way people engage with their coworkers and customers. As a result, it’s important that HR professionals be able to recognize the signs of seasonal depression and take steps to help individuals get the treatment they need.
While symptoms typically begin in the fall and continue throughout the winter months, seasonal depression can occur at any time of the year. It’s important for HR leaders to understand the signs of SAD, even at this time of year, when the weather in many parts of the United States often does not align with the official start of spring. People suffering from seasonal depression might feel moody and drained of energy, which can impact productivity, performance, and attitude toward work.
SAD symptoms vary from person to person and might include changes in appetite, weight gain, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, feeling sad or depressed, a loss of interest in activities, a heightened desire for sleep, and avoidance of social situations.
Fortunately, symptoms often go away during the spring and summer months. But that does not mean managers and HR professionals should dismiss this mental health phenomenon as something that’s just temporary and can therefore be ignored or downplayed.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), an organization that supports and provides advocacy for family physicians and the communities they serve, says 4% to 6% of Americans will experience seasonal depression. Another 10% to 20% might have mild SAD.
The AAFP says that women are four times more likely than men to experience SAD, and it is more common in northern regions than in southern.
Let There Be Light
Fortunately, HR professionals can take steps to help alleviate seasonal depression and promote better mental health for employees and their families. The spring is an opportune time to drive awareness around SAD because it allows employers to support their people through the transition into warmer weather and longer hours of daylight while taking a proactive approach to addressing future instances. It’s mainly a matter of educating employees about how they can try to overcome or reduce the symptoms of seasonal depression and, in some cases, providing them with the resources they need.
One good practice is to encourage people to get outside as much as possible. As the AAFP notes, winter depression is probably caused by a lack of sunlight.
In her LifeSpeak blog, Taking Control of Seasonal Blues, clinical psychologist Marni Amsellem, PhD, says biochemical imbalances cause seasonal changes in mood in the brain triggered by fewer daylight hours and decreased sunlight.
For some people, reduced daylight also alters their circadian rhythm, making it harder to respond to the demands of daily life. Amsellem suggests that those sensitive to seasonal depression should try to get outside regularly, especially in the morning. When they’re inside the house or at work, they should open blinds and drapes during the day.
Those who need an extra boost of light can also consider light therapy lamps, which produce artificial daylight. The AAFP says if a doctor suggests that a patient try light therapy, the individual will likely use a special light box or light visor worn on the head like a cap. Generally, light therapy takes about 30 minutes a day in the fall and winter, the association says.
Another good step is to encourage employees suffering from seasonal depression to reach out to others. This can mean getting out of the house to spend time with friends or family members or volunteering in the community. People who suffer from seasonal depression do not have to talk specifically about their feelings, but doing so can help.
In her LifeSpeak video, Speaking to Others About Depression, psychotherapist Lisa Ndejuru, PhD, says it’s important for people suffering from depression to share their feelings with someone trustworthy who can remain discreet while potentially supporting them.
Individuals looking for support can ask their confidants if they’ve noticed any changes. This type of question can be a good starting point for discussing difficult feelings.
It’s also a good practice to encourage employees suffering from seasonal depression to add healthy lifestyle habits such as taking walks, doing activities with friends, eating well, exercising, meditating, or playing sports. Ndejuru recommends starting slowly by doing just one such activity a day or every couple of days.
Finally, HR professionals should emphasize the importance of eating well. A healthy diet is another way to promote a positive mood and mood stability, according to nutritionist Nishta Saxena.
In her LifeSpeak blog, Food and Mood: What’s the connection?, Saxena says hydration is extremely important, adding that the human brain is more than 70% water, and even just a 2% change in hydration can cause cognitive impairment. Chronic dehydration causes fatigue, depression, and the inability to make clear decisions.
As a guideline, Saxena says most adults benefit from drinking 2 to 3 liters of hydrating fluids per day, including water, herbal teas, various kinds of milk and plant beverages, and homemade soups.
Every organization should be concerned about the mental health and well-being of employees, and HR professionals have an important role in leading the charge to alleviate conditions such as seasonal depression in the workplace.
Factors such as the pandemic and the shift to remote and hybrid work have increased the level of stress and perhaps contributed to more seasonal depression for many employees. By taking steps to assist employees suffering from this and other mental health conditions, HR professionals can go a long way toward creating a healthier, happier, and more productive work environment.
Doug Berkowitz is the Senior Vice President of Operations at LifeSpeak, a leading software-as-a-service provider of a platform for mental health and total well-being education for organizations committed to taking care of their employees and customers.