Dr. Stephanie Moynihan, Associate Medical Director at Dialogue, shares her top tips to help employees suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) this winter, and how employers can support them.
It is estimated that winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects around 2 million people in the UK. This is not unexpected, considering that during colder months the nights become longer, disrupting body clocks and impacting the parts of the brain which make mood-regulating hormones, such as serotonin.
What’s more, decreased exposure to sunlight not only leads to lower levels of vitamin D, but has an impact on circadian rhythm, which can disrupt sleep-wake patterns. This collective impact poses a significant challenge to the UK workforce, with many employees having to face commuting to and from work in the dark.
While there is ongoing research to better understand the causes and effects of SAD, we know that symptoms can vary widely. These range from daytime lethargy and increased sleep duration to difficulty waking up in the morning. Many individuals with SAD also experience feelings of social withdrawal and a lack of motivation for daily tasks.
These personal struggles can extend into various aspects of life, with notable implications in the workplace – resulting in decreased productivity, diminished concentration, and increased absenteeism.
Small daily changes
The good news is that people can integrate small, achievable, and easily implementable daily changes into their lives, both at home and in the workplace, to enhance mental and physical well-being during this challenging season. Dr. Stephanie Moynihan, Associate Medical Director at wellbeing provider Dialogue, a workplace wellbeing platform, shares her top tips for beating the winter blues:
Increase physical activity:
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends exercise as a treatment for depression, emphasising its positive impact on mental wellbeing. Participating in physical activities, particularly in natural environments, is advantageous for mental health, fostering self-esteem, enhancing concentration, improving sleep quality, and contributing to overall health. Even something as simple as going for short walks to get fresh air during the day, and experiencing daylight, can have a remarkably positive effect on people’s daily outlooks.
Good sleep improves the mind, mood, and health. While a number of different factors can impact sleep, setting good habits such as sticking to a routine, avoiding heavy meals, screens, and alcohol before bed, swapping caffeine out in the afternoon, doing relaxation exercises, or taking a short walk if you feel tired during the day can all help improve overall sleep quality, and therefore energy levels throughout the day.
Encourage natural light:
The importance of exposure to natural light should not be underestimated. Whether at home or in the workplace, maximising opportunities for natural light to shine through can help diminish fatigue and promote feelings of happiness. Furthermore, exposure to direct sunlight facilitates the production of vitamin D in the skin, which plays an additional role in improving energy, mood, and overall wellbeing. Consider incorporating light therapy lamps as well, strategically placing them in spaces where natural light might be limited. These lamps mimic natural sunlight, offering a convenient and effective way to combat SAD.
Make healthier food choices:
Preparing healthier, more nutritious meals can have a significant impact on both physical and mental health. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, are particularly beneficial for managing SAD and improving mood. Incorporating lean proteins, whole grains, and complex carbohydrates can help sustain energy levels, and prioritising whole, unprocessed foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as staying hydrated by drinking water regularly throughout the day, can improve overall health. In the workplace, a simple change for employers can involve providing access to fresh fruits or healthier snack alternatives rather than the traditional chocolate biscuit.
In addition to supporting healthy habits, employers can promote the following initiatives to encourage a more resilient workplace in the face of SAD, which can often be achieved through a workplace wellbeing programme or by enhancing existing workplace benefits:
Encourage breaks and movement:
Employers can enhance well-being by being flexible and permitting regular breaks during the work day, especially important during shorter daylight hours and in workplaces with a sedentary nature, in order to foster increased physical activity. Going one step further, businesses can even introduce engaging company challenges, such as a winter step challenge, to motivate employees to stay active and combat the effects of SAD.
Promote current benefits:
Many employers provide valuable benefits, yet these offerings may not be widely communicated and thus remain underused. This presents an opportunity to not only raise awareness about SAD but also to inform employees about concrete steps they can take, such as claiming wellness reimbursements, utilising their Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), or accessing other available resources.
Provide access to self-led mental health resources, such as internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy (iCBT): iCBT can be immensely beneficial in treating SAD, by helping individuals identify and understand unhelpful behaviour patterns, view actions and thoughts in new ways, and learn effective methods for managing emotions. Employers can enrol employees in online CBT programs, destigmatize mental health discussions in the workplace, and highlight the advantages of self-led mental health modules, which guide employees toward more positive thought processes.
Ensure employees are not overworked:
Promoting a healthier work-life balance is essential for preventing burnout and supporting mental wellbeing. Encouraging employees to know when to switch off and leave work behind fosters a reset at home, ultimately boosting motivation for the work ahead. This emphasis on balance contributes to a more resilient and mentally healthy workplace overall.
Dr Stephanie Moynihan, Associate Medical Director at Dialogue.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.