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How to support employee mental health during SAD season

December 20, 2020 | 4 min read

For many people, the fall and winter months bring to mind images of holiday parties, snow angels, and dinners with the family.

But for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), this time of year can be marred by persistent feelings of hopelessness, irritability, and fatigue. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression brought on by changes in the season, with the most common variety being active from September or October through about April. It’s thought to be triggered by lower sunlight instances during this time.

SAD is estimated to impact about 10 million Americans, though many may not have been diagnosed formally. This form of depression is more common in women, who are about four times more likely than men to suffer from SAD, and is more prevalent in northern latitudes, where the winter days are shorter.

Common symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:

  • Feelings of hopeless

  • Sleeping too much or too little

  • Craving starchy and sweet foods

  • Weight gain

  • Fatigue

  • Irritability

  • Avoidance of social situations

  • Thoughts of suicide

With many Americans already experiencing mental health issues either brought on by the ongoing pandemic or exacerbated by it, workplace mental health solutions are vital to combatting SAD this winter. Since the onset of COVID-19, reports of depression in U.S. workplaces have already increased by 32% since February of this year.

And with additional lockdowns seemingly impending, this fall and winter stands to be incredibly challenging for those suffering from SAD, especially in January and February, typically the most difficult months for those suffering from the condition.

Unfortunately, there's still a stigma around both suffering from depression and seeking treatment for it, even in the workplace. Misinformed coworkers or management may perceive lethargy and an inability to concentrate as laziness and not being a team player. For this reason, employees may be reluctant to seek help or even speak to others in the workplace.

The stigma surrounding Seasonal Affective Disorder can be even more difficult because the symptoms are seasonal, which can make them more difficult to identify as a treatable mental health condition. But employers can do plenty to destigmatize Seasonal Affective Disorder and other mental health conditions in the workplace and create work environments – both in person and virtual – where employees feel safe talking about their experiences.

Here are a few tips employers can use to help individuals identify and manage symptoms.

Be flexible

Getting out of bed can be challenging for all of us. Now, imagine the extra challenge of starting the day while living with depression.

With this in mind, and depending on local lockdown procedures and restrictions, companies might offer flexible hours during the fall and winter months.

Allowing additional time for morning routines can help employees with Seasonal Affective Disorder engage in much-needed mental health activities like light therapy sessions, talk therapy, and just enjoying more time soaking up precious vitamin D from the morning sun.

Encourage workplace conversations

Stigma continues to surround the topic of depression. To lessen this stigma employers can increase the dialogue by for example including a segment on the topic within the company newsletter.

Only health care professionals can diagnosis Seasonal Affective Disorder, but offering regular screenings to your team can encourage those with symptoms to explore and engage with your company's mental health resources.

Let there be light

By now you know that sunlight and Seasonal Affective Disorder go hand-in-hand. With that in mind, employers may consider taking steps to allow more natural light into their workspaces. That could mean opening blinds and other window coverings or investing in lamps that mimic natural sunlight. If your employees are still largely working from home, encourage them to do the same in their home offices.

Provide a support structure

Providing mental health support as part of your benefits package can help make it easier for employees to reach out for the help they need. Some Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) may help connect members of your team with mental health support. Other programs, such as Accolade’s Mental Health Integrated Care, can quickly and easily put your employees in touch with licensed counselors via phone or messaging when they need it.

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