You may or may not have heard of the phrase “winter blues” but it refers to the seasonal depression that some individuals suffer from, coined as SAD (seasonal affective disorder). It can occur in the seasonal change to summer; however, it is most commonly experienced, and experienced more severely, during the transition to winter. With 20,000 reported cases of it each year, it is important for employers to consider how this will have implications on their employees and business.
Symptoms of SAD
The symptoms are similar to symptoms of depression. Some symptoms of SAD are:
- Persistent low mood.
- Low energy.
- Very tired in addition to sleeping for longer. Affected individuals report it being far harder to wake up in the morning and sleeping during the day more
- Increased hunger which causes increased weight gain. This can have a further negative impact on mental health due to the negative body image that can arise, worsening disparity and guilt
Why does it occur?
Symptoms of depression can arise in seasonal change due to the disturbance to our hypothalamus (a part of the brain) and our circadian rhythm (internal body clock). The hypothalamus is responsible for the production of lots of important hormones that affect our bodies. Therefore, when it is dark it causes the production of melatonin which is a hormone that makes us feel tired. In the winter months our days are “shorter”. We are exposed to less sunlight therefore we produce more melatonin, causing us to feel more lethargic. The reduction in sunlight also causes us to produce less serotonin which is the hormones responsible for our mood (making us feel happy), therefore this increases the likelihood of low mood. Disturbance to the circadian rhythm is also caused by the lack of sunlight as our bodies use it to time our sleeping patterns/ when we wake up.
How to help alleviate symptoms of SAD:
- Exercise. exercising promotes the production of serotonin which will improve overall mood. It could also be beneficial to exercise midday through methods such as walking or cycling, to get as much exposure to natural sunlight as you can.
- Natural light exposure. In addition to exercising midday and outside, we encourage you to sit by a window where possible to increase your exposure further. The more natural light you receive the better!
- Keep warm. Some research suggests that being cold can make you more depressed and that SAD suffers can be halved by staying warm alone. We recommend wrapping up warm, opting for hot food and drink options and putting heaters on at work or heaters/candles/fireplace on in the home
- Although our bodies natural craves more carbohydrates during the winter months, keeping a well-balanced and healthy diet, with a recommended portion of carbohydrates paired with plenty of vitamin rich fruit and vegetables is optimal. Not only will a healthy diet boost our mood, but it will also prevent unwanted weight gain which can negatively implicate on body image and wellbeing.
- Light therapy. Exposure to light is not always possible which is why we recommend light therapy which uses a special light box/lamp to mimic sunlight, causing our bodies to simulate the internal processes that natural light does in the warmer months.
- Dawn simulator alarm. You could invest in this type of alarm which works by mimicking sunrise by gradually getting lighter to wake you up gradually.
- If all these methods fail, we recommend seeing you GP who can recommend alternate methods like therapy/ counselling or medication such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) known as anti-depressants.
Recommendations for employers:
- Maximize the amount of natural light your workplace has access to by instilling more windows and using natural light over artificial if possible.
- Providing heaters to keep employees warm. This not only will boost mood, but it will also increase productivity and efficiency as they will be able to focus on their tasks opposed to their temperature/ being uncomfortable
- If you supply your workplace with complementary snack and condiments, switch them out for healthier alternatives to minimize the chances of unwanted weight gain
- Consider investing in training for managers, in particular, but employees too to ensure your business is able to recognize early signs of mental health conditions. This will help to address issues before they become severe. This training will also mean affected individuals will receive the appropriate support if issues to arise.
- Consider implementing regular mental health assessments during periods of seasonal change so that no one’s mental health deteriorates under the radar.