There’s a very visible seasonal slump that occurs over winter. Motivations ebb and the communal lull in energy is almost bonding. This is natural – almost everyone feels chirpier when the sun is shining. 
So how can we distinguish whether employees are genuinely feeling the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and what can we do to make their working lives easier? 
 
 
What is seasonal affective disorder? 
 
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are the same as normal depression. Unlike all-year-round depression, however, SAD is triggered by a lack of exposure to sunlight (or so it’s thought). This cycle of depression begins in autumn or winter and starts to improve in spring as the nights draw out. 
SAD sufferers will generally experience any of the following: 
 
Lethargy and decreased energy levels 
A constant low mood 
Weight gain 
Reduced concentration levels 
Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning 
Whilst the majority of employers are aware of seasonal affective disorder - many having even communicated with employees suffering the condition - there is a lack of knowledge on how to respond to it. In a poll of HR professionals conducted by Willis PMI Group, 74% of participants admitted they did not know how to manage the condition to improve the lives of their employees. 
 
 
The effect of seasonal affective disorder in the workplace 
 
The cost to employers 
Five years ago, 20% of UK workers called in sick from the winter blues, research from Epson shows. Whilst we’ve had difficulty tracking down more recent figures, we can only assume that this number has increased. Why is this? The number of general sick days is on the decline, but there has been a significant rise in employees citing mental health as a reason for absence. According to the Office for National Statistics, mental health absence among 25 – 34-year olds has gone up by 2.4% from 2009. 
 
At the time of the Epson survey, employees were taking up to four days a year off because of seasonal affective disorder. Fast-forward to now and one-third of employees identify as suffering, or having suffered, seasonal affective disorder and have taken time off work for it. 
 
The effect on productivity 
The consequences of seasonal affective disorder are not all financial. But they do have knock-on effects for profitability and can be detrimental to others working in the organisation who are forced to pick up the slack. 
 
An employee with SAD will lose productivity over the winter with costs to themselves and the business. They may hop from task to task aimlessly and their eyes will glaze over in meetings. As their to-do-list begins to pile up, the stress of missed deadlines only fuels the depression further. 
Now imagine, if you will, similar scenarios affecting one-third of the office (not counting the 59% of people who admit to lower levels of motivation in the winter) and the effects of this mass drain on productivity. From poor sales to increased office tensions, you won’t be delivering an expected level of quality and this will impact everything from your bottom line to your reputation. 
 
 
Creating a happy office environment 
 
1. Recognise the symptoms – knowing what to look for in an employee will allow you to make provisions for them. An employee with SAD will: 
Experience a significant drop in motivational levels from the summer to the winter 
Have higher levels of absence in the winter 
May display poor punctuality 
May take less pride in their appearance 
Show a distinct lack of cooperation 
Make comments about how tired they are 
 
2. Provide natural light - if your office is poorly lit then consider purchasing light therapy boxes – a box that mimics natural light. If an employee is a known SAD sufferer, then move them near a window or a space that benefits from natural light. 
 
3. Liven up the office scenery – if your general décor is looking a bit drab, brighten it up. Colours have a profound effect on emotion. Introducing the right colours into your office will help stimulate employees. Not forgetting greenery – be sure to add plenty of plants as these add a natural feeling of wellbeing. 
 
4. Encourage people to go outside – here are some ideas: 
Start holding walking meetings 
Encourage people to have lunch outdoors 
Give people access to short daily breaks in which they can go outside for five or ten minutes 
 
5. Introduce flexible working hours – many SAD sufferers will experience disturbed sleep patterns. Flexible working hours gives room for different sleeping patterns, improving productivity and and relaxing the demoralising problem of habitual lateness. 
 
6. Encourage social occasions in and out of work – socialising is extremely important for mental health. Team building gives people a fun respite from their day-to-day with the added advantage of inspiring a more sociable atmosphere. Try to organise at least a bimonthly team-building activity. Equally, make use of people’s individual hobbies in the office – there may be employees willing to start running clubs, football teams and the likes but they need a gentle nudge to get started. 
 
7. Encourage employees to get more involved in office matters such as wellbeing – create a ‘wellbeing board’ comprised of a handful of interested employees. Between them, they can take a much more subjective approach to wellbeing measures using their own experience, and input from exterior team members. 
 
8. Invest in staff wellbeing – it pays for itself and some – investing in staff and wellbeing training has myriad purposes: 
It gives employers and employees the tools to recognise the symptoms of mental health and teaches them how to correctly action responses. 
It gives employees an outlet to discuss their mental health which, in itself, can be a huge weight off their shoulders 
It shows employees that employers are truly sympathetic towards mental health issues, lowering the level of stigma that may exist within your office walls. 
It gives employees the skills to improve productivity and make progress with their career around their mental health challenges. 
 
9. Appoint a mental health ambassador – this will be the person others can go to when they are feeling down, or their mental health is affecting their ability to work efficiently. Your mental health ambassador can be anyone within the organisation, from a manager to a mid-level employee. However, this person must be friendly and approachable. It’s best to choose someone who gets along with most individuals and is naturally very compassionate and considerate in their approach. 
 
 
Clearfocus Mental Health and Communications Training specialises in Business Skills, Conflict, Negotiation, Mental Health Training and Consultancy. Central to Clearfocus’s core values is remaining flexible and understanding individuals’ needs and learning styles. 
Clearfocus is able to supply training in a way that considers people’s different learning styles. All Clearfocus’s training courses are delivered by qualified mental health professionals and can be created for bespoke applications to suit your business needs. 
Clearfocus has the knowledge and experience to add real value for your staff and your customers. Learn more about our current courses here. 
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