SAD: More Than The ‘Winter Blues’
By: Estelle Morrison
For one to three per cent of Canadians, winter’s shorter days can trigger the onset of a mood disorder. Estelle Morrison, of Ceridian Canada, examines the consequences for employers of SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Angela is a 29-year-old, working mother. In the spring and summer months, she runs regularly, enjoys entertaining friends and family, and volunteers for the local food bank in addition to her work as a hospital technician and parenting an active threeyear- old boy.
When late fall approaches, Angela’s life alters dramatically. She struggles to get out of bed in the morning, withdraws from social activities, gains 15 to 20 pounds, and barely gets through her work day, experiencing a noticeable reduction in both the amount and quality of work. She refers to it as the ‘winter blues’ and knows that she will feel better in the spring, believing that she just needs to ‘tough it out’.
The reality is Angela may be living with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
For some, when the occasional ‘winter blues’ set in, an invigorating workout or a mid-season escape to a warmer climate can be just the remedy to counteract the lethargy and the downward shift in our mood. But, for one to three per cent of the general population, or more than 600,000 Canadians, winter can be an extremely difficult season, when the shorter day length triggers the onset of a mood disorder – SAD. SAD can be a debilitating condition that can prevent sufferers from functioning at their best, reducing their level of concentration to the point that they have difficulty performing at work and at home.
Although there is no confirmed cause, SAD is thought to be due to seasonal variations in light.1 During the winter months, the sun sets earlier each day, limiting our exposure to natural light. The decreasing hours of sunlight brought on by the changing season puts us out of step with our circadian rhythms, or daily schedules. Other research indicates that neuro-transmitters – chemical messengers in the brain that help regulate sleep, mood, and appetite – may be disturbed in SAD sufferers. The exact causes are unknown, but researchers do know that SAD is not a psychosomatic or imaginary illness.
SAD can occur in children and teenagers, but most often occurs in individuals over the age of 20 – those entering their prime working years. It is more common in women than men, in residents of northern countries with harsher winters, and it can be a particular concern for shift workers who typically have less exposure to natural light than their ‘9-to-5’ counterparts.
Symptoms Of SAD
A predominant feature of SAD is its cyclic nature. Typically, symptoms begin late fall/early winter and will dissipate either gradually or suddenly in early to late spring. Some SAD symptoms are similar to other types of clinical depression such as low mood, social withdrawal, decreased concentration, low energy and fatigue, and irritability, rendering SAD difficult to diagnose in some cases. When no other cause for the shift in mood is identified, two consecutive winters of depressive episodes lead clinicians to a diagnosis of SAD. SAD sufferers may also have the specific symptoms of:
- Increased sleep
- Increased appetite
- Intense cravings for carbohydrates/sweets
- Weight gain
Those living with SAD can be profoundly affected. Their listlessness and depressive thoughts result in decreased productivity, ‘presenteeism,’ and increased absenteeism and disability claims. Some of the more simple steps that SAD sufferers can undertake to reduce their symptoms include increasing their level of outdoor activity and rearranging their environments to receive maximum sunlight.
Impact On The Workplace
As employers, being aware of the symptoms of SAD and the ways in which it can be treated can help you to guard against the reduced productivity that can result from poor employee health.
- Become informed – Learn about SAD and other mood disorders, and offer to share this information with management within your organization. Excellent mental health websites include the Canadian Mental Health Association (www.cmha.ca) and the Mood Disorders Association of Canada (http://www.mooddisorderscanada.ca/).
- Enlist the support of your EAP provider – If you have an Employee Assistance Program, ask how this service could help with information and consultations. Wherever possible, promote the services of the EAP to the employee base, emphasizing the service’s confidential nature, and the availability of counselling, community resource referrals, and helpful support materials.
- Help reduce stigma – Many employees will resist seeking help, fearing they will be ‘found out’ and seen as weak. Some believe that disclosing mental illness could affect their job or career. Posters, brochures, and lunch n’ learns available from your EAP or local Mental Health Centre can encourage help-seeking behaviour.
- Review benefits and policies – Ensure that your plans include adequate support for mental health concerns. Determine if there is coverage for a light box, a common treatment for SAD. Light therapy or phototherapy involves sitting under a special fluorescent light for as little as 30 minutes each day, and results in improvements for 60 per cent to 70 per cent of SAD sufferers. The side effects of phototherapy are typically mild. They can include nausea, headaches, eye strain, or ‘feeling edgy’ during the initial phase of use.
- Examine your policies on substance use, personal leaves, and illness and disability to ensure they reflect the needs of those suffering from a mental health issue. Communicate those policies to employees regularly.
- Address performance issues and observable changes with your employee. Discuss changes in behaviour and performance- related concerns directly with the employee. Let the individual know what you are seeing and ask how you can help. Do not assess or diagnose. Instead, recommend to the employee that they visit their family physician to ensure that there is no underlying physical cause for what they are experiencing. Even if an employee does not identify emotional or mental health problems, let him/her know what help is available.
- Establish a lunchtime walking group or other activity. Time outdoors in the peak of the day provides valuable exposure to natural light. Establish a wellness committee in your organization to plan some healthful noon-hour activities. Seasonal Affective Disorder can prevent those who suffer from it from functioning normally, seriously limiting their personal and professional potential. But with education, an awareness of the symptoms, and early treatment, those living with SAD can live productive lives while making valuable contributions to their employers.
Estelle Morrison is director, LifeWorks Strategic Solutions, at Ceridian Canada (estelle_ email@example.com).
1. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Canadian Mental Health Association. www.cmha.ca
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