With the summer months coming to an end, many of us are awaiting shorter days and the monotonous cycle of going to and from work in darkness during the colder months. With this season (if you live in a region that experiences the four seasons), comes familiar, groan-inducing moments: chilly mornings that make getting out bed a chore, navigating sick co-workers, and trudging through grey days fit for hibernating.
With fall and winter right around the corner, you may soon see a drop in energy and enthusiasm among some employees. This isn’t abnormal, but some of your employees may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). According to Psychology Today, SAD affects 10 million Americans, mostly women in their 20s.
What is SAD?
Experts believe that SAD is related to hormonal changes during certain times of the year. The lack of daylight in the colder months throws off the body’s natural rhythm and lowers serotonin—a brain chemical related to energy and mood. The result can be feelings of sadness, fatigue, and even physical changes like insomnia and weight gain.
How does SAD affect employees at work?
As Norman E. Rosenthal, MD describes in Psychiatry MMD, “SAD affects productivity in work or school, may affects interpersonal relationship, and causes a marked loss of interest or pleasure in most activities.”
Although it’s the responsibility of employees to seek a treatment plan for their seasonal depression, a good employer can take steps to become more sensitive to the issue and make small changes that could make affected employees more comfortable during this time. Because overall happiness can have a major impact on employee engagement and work productivity, employers should consider the effects seasonal changes may have on their workforce.
Curbing SAD in the Workplace
As an HR leader, you can have a vastly positive impact on employees facing symptoms of SAD. In fact, making changes to address seasonal mood changes and SAD in the workplace doesn’t need to be a costly venture.
Here are four actionable ideas to ease the effect of seasonal changes on everyone in your office:
Increase Natural Light Sources
Many experts attribute SAD to an imbalance of two chemicals in the brain, melatonin, and serotonin, due to less sunlight available during the colder months. As Neall Digert, Ph.D., states, “We have learned in the past five years that it's the presence and intensity of light in the blue region of the visible spectrum that suppresses our body's daytime production of melatonin, and helps regulate our internal clock known as our circadian rhythm, which signals the body to fall asleep and wake up at proper times."
Those suffering from SAD may benefit from moving to a desk or seating area that receives more of the sun’s rays. However, natural light can be hard to come by in some offices, especially in those with inner cubicles tucked away behind high partitions and far from windows. In these circumstances, consider making light boxes available to these employees. Research shows that these devices simulate sunshine, increase serotonin, and boost mood, subsiding many SAD symptoms.
Provide Healthy Food and Beverage Options
Increased appetite and weight gain are also associated with SAD. If your office offers food and beverage amenities, consider offering healthy alternatives to what you currently provide. For example, if you provide free coffee, purchase a couple of herbal tea options. If you cater lunches, offer nutritional greens or pre-cut vegetables. This surely doesn’t mean you need to wage war on sugar and caffeine, but having these alternatives on hand gives your employees the option to make healthier choices.
Here are a few food options to have on hand that can have a positive impact on the symptoms of SAD:
Whole grains (like oatmeal) or complex carbohydrates (like brown rice), which have been shown to increase serotonin levels
Leafy greens (like spinach, kale, or broccoli), which have also been shown to increase serotonin levels
Dark chocolate, which has been shown to reduce stress-causing hormones
Avocadoes, which are full of mood-enhancing folate, calming tryptophan and, as an added bonus, energy-boosting vitamin B6
Encourage Proactive Dialogue
Individuals may not want to share their experience with SAD with the entire office, but increasing the general dialogue about “the winter blues” will provide the context for the suggestions you’re making. The best effort to address SAD will certainly depend on your organization’s given company culture, but could include a company-wide email or even leading a team-building event that encourages employees to get outside more during the colder seasons.
Offer Flexible Work Hours
This may be easier for some offices than others, but allowing employees to choose their own hours can help those with SAD get the proper care and treatment they might need. Employees will have more time to attend light therapy sessions or counseling sessions, and can also gain a little more sunshine before the workday would normally start or end. Consider that this may aid in productivity and avoids staff members arriving in time to simply “clock-in.”
With millions of people in today’s workforce impacted by some degree of SAD, chances are, one or more members of your own staff are currently facing symptoms of the disorder. Offering support to employees with SAD and other seasonal mood changes not only boosts workplace productivity, culture, and engagement but overall has a positive impact on society.