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5 ways to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder in the workplace
Illustration by Justin Alm

3 min read

5 ways to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder in the workplace

How to address Seasonal Affective Disorder and winter blues at work to retain a happy workforce and high productivity.

Happiness and engagement are important building blocks when growing a successful company, so good employers spend a lot of time, energy, and money on keeping their workforce happy. According to Good.co, happy employees have 31% higher productivity, 37% higher sales, and 3x more creativity than unhappy employees. Unfortunately, around this time of the year, seasonal change can threaten happiness, engagement, and productivity at work.

We all know that it’s not uncommon to feel a little suffocated by shorter days and the monotonous cycle of going to and from work in darkness during the colder months. In fact, according to Norman E. Rosenthal MD, up to 14% of North Americans are said to suffer from winter blues; a slightly milder, medically recognized, version of the better-known Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - a depression brought on by seasonal change.

How does seasonal depression affect people at work?

Those who suffer from SAD or the winter blues may experience:

  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty waking up in morning
  • Decreased energy levels
  • Weight gain
  • Lower concentration levels

Rosenthal, referring to SAD sufferers, goes on to state: “As you can imagine, their work and relationships suffer, and they can become quite depressed […] SAD affects productivity in work or school, may affect interpersonal relationships, and causes a marked loss of interest or pleasure in most activities.”

Should this really be an employer issue?

SAD is a major depressive disorder, most commonly treated by light therapy, medication, and psychotherapy. So, while 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. If concern for employee wellness is not enough of an incentive, it may be useful to remember the correlation between productivity and happiness.

5 ways to keep employees happy during seasonal change

Making changes to address seasonal mood changes and SAD in the workplace doesn’t need to cost the earth. Medical experts agree that SAD is linked to a decrease in natural light, so increasing exposure to sunshine can go a long way. Here are five easily actionable ideas to ease the effect of winter blues on everyone in your office: 
  1. Encourage outdoor walks: During dreary winter months, getting outside during daylight hours gets harder for everyone. Suggesting outdoor lunch breaks, a mid-afternoon stroll to get a coffee or even a short outdoor meeting to chat about an ongoing or upcoming project will all increase exposure to valuable, natural light.

  2. Offer flexible hours: This may be easier for some offices than others, but where possible offering flexibility in hours could help in a number of ways. Employees will have more time to attend light therapy sessions, counselling sessions, and gain a little more sunshine before the work day would normally start or end. Consider that this may aid in productivity and avoid staff members arriving in time to simply “clock-in”.

  3. Increase natural/bright light: Natural light can be hard to come by in some offices, with inner cubicles tucked away behind high partitions and far from windows. For known SAD sufferers, it may be worth moving them to a space that benefits from natural light. Or, consider floating desks in naturally lit areas. If that’s not possible, allow the use of small light therapy boxes within the office, which are commonly used to treat SAD.

  4. Provide healthy options: As increased appetite and weight gain are also associated with SAD, consider offering healthy alternatives to what you currently provide at your office. This doesn’t have to blow the budget; if you provide free coffee, purchase a couple of herbal tea options. If you cater lunches, offer nutritional greens or cut vegetables. You don’t have to declare war on sugar and caffeine, but offering alternatives gives your employees the opportunity to make healthy choices.

  5. Up the dialog: Individuals may not want to share their seasonal affective disorder with the entire office, but increasing the general dialog about the winter blues will provide the context for the suggestions you’re making. The way to do this will depend on your company culture, but could include sending out a company-wide email or establishing a Winter Blues champion who leads the effort in encouraging outdoor walks. Choose something that works for your team and get the word out.


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Hannah Price

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