5 Authentic Workplace Strategies for Countering Seasonal Affective Disorder

Does it seem as if once-perky employees are wilting like week-old birthday balloons? And you’re getting more and more manager reports that staff members find it hard to stay motivated throughout the day? At the start of fall, HR managers across the country often see a sudden shift within their workplaces.

It’s not their imagination. It’s Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It’s a side-effect of the fall and winter season for the 6 percent of the population affected by SAD and the 14 percent that suffers from a lesser form of seasonal depression known as the “winter blues.”

SAD has been a workplace issue since 2010 when U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled SAD was an admissible workplace disability. Ever since, HR teams have been working hard to figure out what they can do to make their workplaces more productive during this season.

While you cannot (and should not) attempt to diagnose or treat this illness within your workplace, here are five different approaches you can implement to create the most welcoming and productive work environment for staff members suffering from SAD:

1. Counter SAD with Sunlight and Bright Light Therapy

The underlying cause of SAD is still being studied, but experts agree that it is related to decreased access to high-quality sources of sunlight. Depending on your geographic location, there’s not much you can do about it being darker during the winter months. However, you can combat SAD by helping your employees get as much sunlight as possible when it is available.

Encourage employees to eat lunch outdoors or take walks on clear days. If it’s in the budget and fits the calendar, host an outdoor potluck or field trip to a local park before the weather turns too cold. Activities that promote socialization and sunlight will go a long way towards lifting the mood.

If possible, find alternative light sources. Invest in bright light therapy for common areas and conference spaces. For a one-time cost of a few hundred dollars, you could literally bring sunshine into your office for many seasons to come.

2. Brainstorm Creative Solutions for Physical Symptoms

Here’s a typical list of symptoms employees suffering from SAD might experience:

  • Less energy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Greater appetite
  • Increased desire to be alone
  • Greater need for sleep
  • Weight gain

Think of ways to lessen these side-effects. For example, to counter employees feeling less energized, you might be able to offer discounts on group exercise classes at a local gym a few days per week. For employees who have difficulty concentrating, encourage your management team to express openness to increased breaks throughout the day. You could also offer flexible schedules for those who need more time to complete their work.

Not every morale booster needs to be a budget-blaster, but it’s important to invest time and attention into your employees during this season to build trust and encourage year-round productivity.

3. Educate Your Management Team and Embrace the EAP

While many symptoms of SAD are physiological and are brought on by the changing season, counseling and group therapy can bring comfort to employees dealing with those symptoms.

Educate your managers to identify symptoms of SAD in employees and encourage your employees to take advantage of their Employment Assistance Program (EAP) whenever they feel overwhelmed or depressed. Within reason, make sure managers allow flexible breaks to attend these appointments.

While it may require an adjustment to the normal work schedule, the quality of work and quality of life your employees experience will be enhanced by properly positioning EAP benefits.

4. Offer Alternatives to Sweets and Caffeine

Sugar and caffeine both have a reputation as a quick energy boost. But did you know that they are in fact depressants? And that consuming food or drink with either can significantly worsen symptoms of depression? Unfortunately, this means that your office treat bowl and never-ending coffee pot may have a lot to do with deepening or worsening the symptoms of SAD.

While you won’t get far trying to ban chocolate or coffee from the workplace, you can make small changes that will encourage your employees to make better choices.

Start by encouraging employees to consider the benefits of avoiding sugar and caffeine. Then invest your office treat fund in healthier snack alternatives such as non-legume mixed nuts, organic string cheese and pre-cut vegetables. These activities will keep your budget intact and help your employees make smarter nutritional choices during the winter months.

5. Consider Flexible Scheduling

Many people who suffer from SAD cite morning and evening darkness as a major factor in feelings of depression. Arriving at work when it’s dark and departing from work when it’s dark makes it seem like the winter months merge into one long, dark day.

To help your team get more sunlight and come to work more energized, consider offering flexible scheduling or flex time for each department or team.

While some workplaces simply do not lend themselves to flexible scheduling, there are many professional services that do. Allowing employees to arrive to work later, arrive earlier and depart later, or work different hour sets during the day might help them jumpstart productivity and avoid long periods of “presenteeism” or showing up to clock in but not being as effective as usual. Your employees may benefit from adopting this schedule a few times per week.

While most of us are looking forward to the good things that come with the changing seasons— apple cider, pumpkins, and holiday celebrations, just to name a few— the fall season brings with it something else entirely for many employees and managers in the modern workplace. If you are concerned about the impending effects of SAD within your workplace, consider implementing some or all of these ideas so that you and your team can enjoy the good things that come with the fall and winter holiday season.

How are you preparing your workplace for the mood changes that come with the winter months?