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Seasonal Depression Isn’t a Myth, and Leaders Should Be Equipped to Address It

Image of a person wearing a grey jacket sitting on bench among trees during a winter storm

Some people thrive in the winter. Whether they are enjoying time outside in the snow or cozying up in front of the fireplace with a good book, winter can bring unique joys.

For many, however, winter can also bring unique challenges. With less sunlight, shorter days, and grey skies, these darker, colder months can affect how well some people feel and perform. While these effects range in severity, some people may experience what is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — and leaders should be prepared to address it.

It's important to take signs and symptoms of SAD seriously because it can get worse if left untreated. Issues such as social withdrawal, problems with performance and behavior, and unhealthy coping mechanisms like increased substance use can interfere with work as well as enjoyment of life. Untreated, SAD can also lead to other mental health problems such as anxiety, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts or behaviour.

Understanding that SAD is a real disorder, what the causes are, and how to cope can be very helpful for leadership and staff alike.

Educate employees about SAD

SAD is a mood disorder brought on by the changing of seasons. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can be triggered by reduced levels of sunlight or increased levels of sunlight depending on which season a person is more prone to SAD. This causes changes in circadian rhythms and a drop in serotonin levels, which can trigger depression, and changes to melatonin levels, which can interfere with our ability to sleep.

Women tend to be diagnosed with SAD more than men and it appears to affect younger adults more frequently than older adults. There are other factors that can increase the risk such as family history of SAD or other types of depression, having a major depression or bipolar disorder, living far from the equator (as we do here in Canada) and having low levels of vitamin D.

Common signs and symptoms of SAD may include:

  • Feeling listless, sad, or down most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy and feeling sluggish
  • Having problems with sleeping too much
  • Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
  • Having thoughts of not wanting to live

SAD is most common in the winter months and clears up as the days get longer and brighter. This is commonly called winter depression. However, some people experience symptoms of summer depression in the spring and summer, which may resolve in the winter months. Signs and symptoms vary depending on which season a person experiences SAD.

Winter Depression Summer Depression
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Agitation or anxiety
  • Increased irritability

Provide information about causes and coping strategies

If you, a colleague, or an employee is showing signs of SAD, learning more about the causes and how to cope can help to ease symptoms. Share the link to the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Mini-guide to Help Employees’ Mental Health Through Winter, which includes tips for dealing with issues such as:

  • Lack of sunlight
  • Decreased exercise
  • Financial concerns
  • Family obligations
  • Eating habits
  • Isolation
  • Alcohol and substance use
  • Work schedules
  • Additional challenges that are brought on by the pandemic during the winter months

Communicate with empathy

How we communicate is just as important as what we say. When we seek to understand, we build trust. This is foundational to overcoming stigma, which prevents so many people from reaching out for help. Sometimes, self-stigma may also interfere with someone recognizing their own struggle with SAD. This can be especially true in leadership or executive circles.

Even if we cannot walk in another person’s shoes, we can still combat stigma by listening and communicating with empathy. There are several ways to do this, including:

  • Letting team members know that SAD is a real condition, and that there are supports available to help them cope.
  • Reminding staff about your organization’s policies, programs, and benefits that support well-being. Do your benefits cover counseling, light therapy lamps, or wellness activities or equipment? If so, tell them about it.
  • Share personal stories about SAD or related experiences. Sharing stories in a psychologically safe way may help to bridge emotions and offer hope.

Support employees in whatever capacity they are working

We know that people who are working from home are trying to balance many aspects of work and personal life — time, workspace, privacy, distractions, ergonomics, obligations outside the home, etc. Those who work outside the home are also dealing with additional stresses of commuting, higher exposure to COVID, wearing PPE at work, and for many, dealing with difficult people. To help support employees in a meaningful way:

  • Provide access to suitable equipment, materials, and services to support the workers safety while they're working at home, in the physical workplace, or in a hybrid environment.
  • Encourage balance and flexibility.
  • Establish regular check-ins.
  • Encourage employees to take their breaks and use the time off that they are entitled to.
  • Encourage participation in social and volunteer activities.

Help employees with SAD to get the support appropriate for them

Although the signs and symptoms of SAD are common, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some people may need different supports to match their circumstances. Language, culture, location, home situation, identity, physical and psychological abilities should not prevent employees from getting the help they need and deserve. By connecting employees with peer support, employee assistance programs, credible mental health and wellness apps, or community supports like Wellness Together Canada, we can help them find the support they need, no matter the season.

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