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Seasonal Effective Disorder and How to Help

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression related to changes in the environmental seasons.

  • According to Mental Health America, about 10 million people in the United States suffer from SAD. The last global study conducted by the World Health Org in 2019 estimated over 250 million people worldwide suffer from SAD.
  • Close to 85% of SAD sufferers experience the height of their symptoms during the fall/winter months.
  • 8 of 10 people who suffer from SAD identify as women. 19% of people who suffer from SAD are of the African, Asian, Latine, Middle Eastern, and Indigenous diasporas.

Scientists do not specifically know what causes SAD. Research seems to indicate that it is connected to some combination of an underproduction of serotonin, an overproduction of melatonin, and a lack of exposure to natural Vitamin D, which occur naturally during the fall/winter months. However, as with most mental health conditions, there has been no conclusive cause determined since SAD was first deemed a unique medical diagnosis in 1984 and research continues.

Some symptoms of SAD are:

  • Feeling sad and/or having a depressed mood not connected to any specific life event
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities typically enjoyed during other times of the year
  • Tearfulness or unexplainable crying episodes
  • Increased appetite, particularly craving carbohydrates
  • Change in sleep habits; usually sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy, general irritability, and/or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
  • Difficulty sitting still, thinking, concentrating, or making decisions

Seasonal Affective Disorder must be diagnosed by a medical professional. A diagnosis of SAD will typically depend on whether the person has had symptoms during the same seasons for two or more years in a row and whether their periods of depression are followed by periods without depression.

Here are a few ways you can support those with SAD during their peak symptom months:

  • Talk about mental health year-round. It is important for you and your organization to make it safe for employees to share their mental health status and ask for the support they need to function. Make this a topic discussed regularly as part of health and wellness programming, not just when a tragedy occurs or only during certain times of year.
  • Embrace flexible scheduling. Consider adjusting office hours to start later or end earlier or extending lunches to allow employees more opportunity to access natural daylight. Also be open to allowing employees to adjust their schedule as needed to manage their mental health.
  • Adjust workloads to allow for more downtime and rest. In our efforts to end the year strong or to start the new year with a bang, we often push productivity at the time of year when people are dealing with high levels of life stress. Consider adjusting to a more moderate pace where possible to allow the downtime, rest, and bandwidth people need to better manage their mental health.
  • Do not make assumptions. It is offensive and potentially unlawful to make assumptions about someone’s mental health diagnosis and/or their accommodation needs. If someone in your workplace is showing symptoms of SAD or another mental health struggle, show concern without applying labels. Encourage them to seek help. Let them know that you support them and that their employment is not at risk. Do not make changes to their workload or work schedule unless the employee has requested accommodation or there is a specific and documented performance outcome related reason.

While the holiday season that begins at Halloween and carries through the New Year is typically one associated with fun, joy, and happiness, it is simultaneously a really difficult time for millions worldwide. It is likely that someone in your workplace is grappling with SAD and doing their best just to make it through each workday. Use this information and these tips to help those suffering from SAD or other mental health conditions – and to improve the health, wellness, satisfaction, productivity, and retention of your workplace altogether.

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