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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in the Workplace

Preface: The author of this article has suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) since she was a young girl growing up in Michigan and as she continued her career in Indiana.  It not only impacted her ability to concentrate in high school and college, but also impacted her actions in the work environment during her career. She was often criticized by her employers for being uncooperative, irritable, and moody with her coworkers, all which led to her lack of self-confidence in the workplace. So, to overcome her anxiety, depression, and overall lack of self-confidence, she buried herself in learning as much about her area of expertise, human resources, as possible, so that she could not be criticized for being nonproductive. Her only regret to this day is that she was not more forthcoming with her anxiety and issues related to SAD, so that her employers could have accommodated her needs. Through the writing of this article, it is her hope that she will be able to help employers become more aware of what SAD is, how they may be able to impact their employees in the workplace by being aware of its symptoms, and by offering some ideas on how to assist employees with coping with SAD. It is the opinion of the author that if employers could embrace the stigma of mental health issues in the workplace and better engage with their employee’s that we would all have the ability to work in a more inviting environment.

As an employer, do you have employees who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD? The Health Research Funding organization estimates the following statistics (https://healthresearchfunding.org/seasonal-affective-disorder-statistics related to SAD:

  • Estimated to affect 10 million American’s every year.
  • While an extra 10-20% may have mild episodes.
  • It is much more common in women than men.
  • Typically starts around age 20.
  • Some people’s symptoms affect their quality of life.
  • 6% have required hospitalization.
  • 55% percent of people have family members with a depression issue.
  • 34% have family members with alcohol abuse.
  • Normally doesn’t happen in children under 20 years old.
  • Sometimes detected by parents and teachers.
  • Risk decreases the older you get.
  • More common in the northern states.

So, with this being said, how do employers know if they have an employee, or employees, who suffer from SAD? The author would venture to guess that most employers have no idea what SAD is, so really have not addressed whether they have employees who suffer from it in the workplace. So, let’s first define it as a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern with most people having higher symptoms during the fall and winter months due to overcast skies and poor indoor lighting. However, some individuals still feel the side effects of SAD in the summer too.  SAD affects the level of hormones, mainly serotonin and melatonin, in the part of the brain controlling overall mood. Employees who suffer from SAD often experience symptoms of lack of energy or fatigue, difficulty concentrating, feelings of wanting to withdraw, burnout, sadness, guilt, hopelessness, irritability and stress intolerance, mood swings, a lack of interest in daily activities, or social interactions, and abnormal sleep patterns. All of which impact an individual’s ability to cope and be productive in the workplace.

For employees, SAD may be considered covered under The Americans with Disabilities Act and its Amendments Act (ADAAA) (https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ofccp/faqs/americans-with-disabilities-act-amendments). The ADAAA applies to employers with 15 or more employees and is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life — to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services. To be protected by the ADAAA, one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADAAA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADAAA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered. So, employers must conduct an interactive process with employees who appear to have symptoms related to SAD to understand if reasonable accommodations are needed on behalf of the employee without creating an undue hardship on the employer.

According to the Job Accommodation Network, some questions that employers may need to ask in order to know if reasonable accommodations are needed include:

  • What limitations is the employee experiencing?
  • How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
  • What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
  • What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
  • Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
  • Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?

Engaging in interactive conversations with employees who have symptoms and making reasonable accommodations helps to increase an employee’s ability to be more productive and efficient in their work environment. Working with employees and encouraging them to stick to a routine in their daily activities, eating a balanced and nutritious diet, creating a regular exercise routine, striving for work-life balance, taking short breaks to stretch or take a walk, staying connected to family, friends, and coworkers, and volunteering in an area that the employee is passionate about, may all be strategies to aid the employee in helping to cope with SAD. Employers may also find the need to make a mandatory referral to their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in order to get employees the professional assistance that they may need to deal with their symptoms.

Employers may also want to make sure that employees who suffer from SAD have the proper lighting in their work area.  While there are many factors that affect workplace productivity, proper lighting is often overlooked by most employers. Improper lightening may cause eye strain, and headaches.  Florescent lighting, or areas where lighting is dim or dull, is a major contributor to SAD. The best alternative to harsh or dim lighting is natural lighting. So, to assist employees who have SAD, an employer may want to make sure that the employees are located in areas next to large windows where natural light is prevalent. If natural light is not prevalent then the employer may want to consider purchasing one of the following items available to accommodate workers with SAD:

  • Light Boxes – Rectangular light fixtures that have several fluorescent tubes that produce between 5,000 and 10,000 lux and come in many different sizes and styles.
  • Light Visors – Head-mounted light sources that resemble visors. These are good for those employees who have to be mobile during their day.
  • Desk Lamps – They resemble typical office lamps.
  • Dawn Stimulators – Devices that mimic natural sunrises by gradually brightening rooms over prolonged periods of time.

So, what else should employers do? It is very important that they start by creating an environment where employees feel comfortable reaching out to their employer if they are struggling with mental health challenges. Inviting a mental health professional to give a talk on SAD, then training managers and supervisors on how to look for the signs and symptoms of SAD, as well as understanding support mechanisms to help those employees who may suffer from it in the workplace, is always a good start. Distributing fliers and emails related to the signs and coping mechanisms of SAD, is also a good way to start and/or continue the conversation so that employees feel comfortable coming forward. Offering an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is always an added benefit to assist not only employees, but their dependents who live within their household, as SAD tends to affect everyone who interacts with the employee.

Employers who make an effort to understand and are aware of mental health issues within their workplaces and who help to implement a wide range of initiatives and services to support employees who encounter symptoms related to SAD, will ultimately be promoting good mental health in their organizations. Employers need to remember that it’s the small things that make a difference to employees and that employees who feel that their issues are recognized and supported will ultimately be more engaged in their work and dedicated to their employer.

For additional information on SAD in the workplace, please contact us at www.NewFocusHR.com.

Written By: Kristen Deutsch, M.B.A., CCP






New Focus HR is a human resources consulting and training company that services all organizations. Our expert team collaborates with businesses to attract, motivate, retrain and retain their biggest assets, employees. While engaged with an organization, our focus is to find solutions that improve the company’s internal HR-related practices while increasing results at the same time! Our focus. Your results.