Seasonal Affective Disorder: Is Lack of Sunlight Making You or an Employee SAD?

Posted on January 2, 2011 by VITAL WorkLife

If you're seeing employees who are getting a little blue in January, it's not just that the holidays are over or the weather is cold—they may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that particularly affects people who live in places with long winter nights—and grey, overcast skies during the day.

Symptoms usually build up slowly in the late autumn and worsen during winter months. According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of SAD include:

  • Increased appetite with weight gain (weight loss is more common with other forms of depression)
  • Increased sleep and daytime sleepiness (too little sleep is more common with other forms of depression)
  • Less energy and ability to concentrate in the afternoon
  • Loss of interest in work or other activities
  • Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement
  • Social withdrawal
  • Unhappiness and irritability

Tests and Treatments: Tackling the Symptoms of SAD

There is no real test for SAD; the diagnosis is typically made based on the history and timing of symptoms. A healthcare provider may perform a physical exam and blood tests to rule out other disorders that are similar to SAD.

With no treatment, symptoms usually get better on their own with the change of seasons. However, symptoms can improve more quickly with treatment. For employees who appear to be struggling with signs of depression and experiencing unusual drops in productivity, or more absences, this can be critical.

The same antidepressant medications and talk therapies used to treat other forms of depression have proven effective with SAD. Increased exercise and long walks during daylight hours can also ease symptoms.

The one treatment specific to SAD versus other forms of depression is light therapy, which involves sitting a few feet away from special lamp with a very bright fluorescent light (10,000 lux) for about 30 minutes a day. If light therapy is going to help, SAD symptoms should improve within 3 - 4 weeks.

This can be a relatively simple and effective way for employees to get the therapy they need, just by putting a therapy lamp in their office or cubicle. For employees who work in non-office environments, such as manufacturing, retail or healthcare workers, providing a dedicated space to set up their therapy lamp to use during lunch or other breaks can be an easy accommodation that far outweighs the costs involved with absenteeism and presenteeism.

We Can Help

People who have had repeated seasonal depression should talk to a mental health professional about prevention methods. Starting treatment during the fall or early winter, before the symptoms of SAD begin, may be helpful.

If you're not sure what you or an employee are experiencing is SAD, or would like counseling around other depression symptoms that you, an employee, or a member of your family may be experiencing, call 800.383.1908 and ask to speak to an EAP counselor. Confidential counseling, coaching and support is free to you, your employees and family members as part of your EAP benefit. Access additional resources on your VITAL WorkLife App and Member Website.

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