Winter takes its toll on the workplace

Seasonal affective disorder lowers concentration and impedes performance

As the days get shorter and colder our natural impulse, just like other animals, is to hibernate until spring. While most people are able to overcome this compulsion and continue with their daily activities through the winter months, more than one million Canadians suffer much more severe symptoms that can affect their jobs and their relationships.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects from three to 30 per cent of Canadians in varying intensity. About 80 per cent of sufferers are women between the ages of 20 and 40. It’s a form of major depression that is cyclic, with symptoms starting in late fall and disappearing in early spring.

“The shorter the day, the less light, the worse the symptoms are,” says Estelle Morrison, director, LifeWorks Strategic Solutions at Ceridian Canada, an employee assistance program provider.

In the workplace, an individual with SAD might not look or act depressed in the expected way, says Morrison. The employee probably won’t cry a lot but instead will be very tired and report that she’s not functioning as well as she normally does.

Oversleeping without feeling rested is one of the major symptoms of the disorder. An affected individual might fall asleep on the job or frequently come to work late because of sleeping in, says Morrison.

In workplaces with shift-work, employers need to be especially aware of the effects of SAD as shift work can exacerbate an individual’s sleep disturbances.

Other symptoms include a lack of concentration, increased irritability, sadness, a craving for carbohydrates and weight gain.

If a manager or HR professional suspects an employee might be suffering from SAD, he should approach the employee based on work performance issues and avoid labelling the employee as having SAD because only a doctor can make that diagnosis, says Morrison.

“If work performance is not at all affected then it’s okay to express concern and approach the individual from the perspective of ‘Is there anything I can do to support you? Here’s what I’ve noticed.’ The individual gets to say yea or nay but it’s a great way to begin a supportive relationship with the employee and for the employee to get feedback that’s not punitive.”

If an employee goes to a manager about her symptoms, the manager can refer her to an EAP, if the company has one, or provide other resources through the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health ( or the Mood Disorders of Ontario (, says Morrison. But most importantly the employee needs to see her family doctor for a proper diagnosis.

“You want to get these individuals to a professional who can do a whole evaluation of what they’re experiencing. There are physical conditions, there are other psychological conditions, that can all have similar symptoms.”

Once diagnosed, the most common form of treatment is phototherapy where an individual sits in front of a light bulb that mimics daylight for 30 minutes to two hours each day. The therapy has a 60- to 70-per-cent success rate.

If phototherapy isn’t effective, the doctor might prescribe medications such as anti-depressants or some form of combination therapy.

It’s important to distinguish SAD from the winter or holiday blues. SAD is by its nature cyclic and occurs more than once. Once an individual is diagnosed, she might have to continue treatment for several winters. Using the light before the onset of symptoms and having a year-round exercise program that includes outdoor winter activities can lessen the effects of the disorder.

“Whatever gets you outside throughout the year may help to offset the magnitude or the repeat incidence. So knowing ahead of time is a great piece of information in terms of assisting in next year’s bout,” says Morrison.

Workplace initiatives that can benefit everyone include nutritional support to encourage employees to eat healthy and fitness breaks at lunch to get employees outside during the day.

“Cloudy light is better than no light,” says Morrison. “Even those who suffer milder forms of the winter blues can benefit from that.”

If an employee identifies herself as suffering from the disorder, putting her desk next to a window or placing extra lights around her workstation can alleviate the symptoms.

“Many years ago the workday was dictated by the light but with electricity we’re not going by the natural rhythms. We need to make the light issue work for us as much as we can.”

Facts about seasonal affective disorder

•In Florida, less than one per cent of the population has SAD.

•In Alaska, as much as 10 per cent of the population is affected.

•Iceland has a much lower SAD rate than expected for its latitude, while Vancouver with its warm, dark winters has a relatively high rate. Studies suggest that cities with cold, bright winters and active winter cultures actually mitigate the effects of shorter winter days.

•Exercise and a diet low in sugar can alleviate symptoms, especially fatigue.

•It’s suspected that SAD has a genetic component and it’s common to find entire families of sufferers.

•While scientists still don’t know what causes SAD, one theory is that affected individuals have a disturbance in the “biological clock” in the brain that regulates hormones, sleep and mood, so that this clock “runs slow” in the winter. Other theories are that neurotransmitter functions, particularly serotonin and dopamine, are disturbed in SAD. Still other scientists believe that patients with SAD have reduced retinal light sensitivity or immune function in the winter.

•Side effects of phototherapy are mild and include, but aren’t limited to: eyestrain, headaches, irritability and insomnia. Insomnia usually occurs if the treatment is taken too late in the day.

•Light boxes cost between $250 and $500. Some employee benefit plans will reimburse part or all of the cost if the treatment is prescribed by a doctor.

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