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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Career Tips
When Shakespeare wrote in 1592, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” he didn’t know how appropriate his words would be some 427 years later. An updated medical term for that type of winter’s discontent is Seasonal Affective Disorder, known appropriately by the acronym SAD.
Blogger Hannah Price reports that psychiatrist Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal found that “up to 14% of North Americans are said to suffer from winter blues; a slightly milder, medically recognized, version of the better-known Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — a depression brought on by seasonal change.”
Some Workplaces May Have Employees Who Suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder
In some workplaces, there may be employees who suffer from SAD. The symptoms are:
- Difficulty waking up in morning
- Decreased energy levels
- Weight gain
- Lower concentration levels
“It’s not uncommon to feel a little suffocated by shorter days and the monotonous cycle of going to and from work in darkness during the colder months,” Dr. Rosenthal adds. “As you can imagine, their work and relationships suffer, and they can become quite depressed.”
To help diagnose SAD, the Mayo Clinic suggests that your doctor or mental health professional do a thorough evaluation, which includes:
- A physical examination. Your doctor may do a physical exam and ask in-depth questions about your health. In some cases, depression may be linked to an underlying physical health problem.
- Lab tests. Your doctor may ask for a blood test called a complete blood count (CBC) or test your thyroid to make sure it’s functioning properly.
- A psychological evaluation. To check for signs of depression, your doctor or mental health professional will ask about your symptoms, thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns. You may also be asked to fill out a questionnaire to offer your healthcare provider with some insights into your feelings.
- The DSM-5 evaluation. Your mental health professional may use the criteria for seasonal depressive episodes listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Light Therapy Is a Primary Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Light therapy is one of the first treatments for fall-onset SAD. Also called phototherapy, the sufferer sits a few feet from a special light box and is exposed daily to bright light within the first hour of waking up. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.
Light therapy generally starts to work in a few days to a few weeks and has few side effects. Although research on light therapy is limited, the Mayo Clinic says “it appears to be effective for most people in relieving SAD symptoms.”
In some cases, SAD may be treated with an antidepressant before symptoms typically begin each year. But it may take several weeks to notice an antidepressant’s full benefits. In addition, SAD sufferers might have to be prescribed different medications before finding one that works well and has the fewest side effects.
Steps You Can Take to Combat SAD
The Mayo Clinic offers several steps that SAD sufferers can take to tackle SAD:
- Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds and sit closer to bright windows at home or in the office.
- Get outside. Weather permitting, eat lunch at a nearby park or simply sit on a bench outside for a while. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help, especially if you can spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise and other types of physical activity help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. Being more fit makes you feel better about yourself too, which can also elevate your mood.
- Be social. When you’re feeling down, it is hard to be social. Make an effort to connect with friends and co-workers you enjoy being around. They can offer support, a shoulder to cry on or shared laughter to give you a little boost.
- Make your workplace a happy place. Decorate your cubicle with photos from a happy vacation spot, a special occasion or your children’s school artwork. Put up a funny wall calendar. Even if you have a workstation with only a desk and chair, a few small souvenirs or mementos on the desk from a favorite place – a small replica of the Eiffel Tower or a good luck elephant statue – may brighten your mood.
- Take a trip. If possible, take winter vacations in sunny, warm locations. Just the time away from the office can alter your mood and help make the winter end sooner.
Price says employers can also help their employees mitigate SAD effects by:
- Encouraging outdoor walks: Suggesting outdoor lunch breaks, a mid-afternoon stroll or even a short outdoor meeting to chat about an ongoing or upcoming project will increase employees’ exposure to valuable, natural light.
- Offering flexible hours: Where possible, offering flexible work hours gives employees more time to attend light therapy sessions or counseling. It also allows them to gain more sunshine during the work day.
- Increasing natural/bright light: For known seasonal affective disorder sufferers, moving them to an office space exposed to natural light could alleviate SAD symptoms. If that’s not possible, allow them to use small light therapy boxes in the office.
- Providing healthy options: As increased appetite and weight gain are associated with SAD, consider healthy alternatives to what you currently provide at your office. If you provide free coffee, add a couple of herbal tea options. If you cater lunches, offer nutritional greens or cut vegetables. Offering alternatives gives your employees the opportunity to make healthy choices.
- Upping the dialogue: Individual employees may not want to share their SAD condition with the entire office, but increasing the general dialogue about the “winter blues” will provide a context for some suggestions you make. Consider sending out a companywide email suggesting ways to beat the blues or establishing Winter Blues Championship Outdoor Walks. Choose something that works, perhaps with a simple prize for the winner, and get the word out.
Like its seasonal partner affliction, the common cold, there is no known positive cure for seasonal affective disorder. However, these tips for office workers and their employers could be the ray of sunshine that bridges the sadness gap until spring arrives.