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SAD, the winter blues, and what can you do to help your employees


3 August 2023

It’s not uncommon for people to experience a dip in their mental state during the colder months. People who live with mental illnesses often find winter can exacerbate some of their usual symptoms. And, for some (usually) mentally healthy people, winter can create feelings of melancholy, despondency and dampened motivation.

Life and work must go on making these feelings extra difficult to manage.

‘Seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD) is a form of clinical depression known clinically as ‘Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern’. While it is more likely prominent in countries that face gruelling, icy winters, roughly one in 300 Australians experience it.

Dr Nick Titov, psychology professor at Macquarie University and executive director of Mindspot, says many people experience what he calls the ‘winter blues’. “Wintertime means we can’t do things which we would normally do, and, as a consequence, we often find that our habits and routines change,” says Titov. “So the things which bring us joy and keep us stimulated and engaged, we may not be doing too much. Because of this, we often feel that we’re in a rut or that we’re running on a treadmill.”

SAD vs the winter blues

While the winter blues might not be an official diagnosed mental health condition, we shouldn’t discount the impact this can have on employees.

According to a 2015 survey by McCrindle, 35 per cent of employees experience reduced motivation at work during winter and 27 per cent said their productivity/effectiveness was reduced. Unsurprisingly, the tendency to oversleep, overeat and socialise less also peak during winter.

Considering the winter blues affect us every year, do employers have a responsibility to address it? Or should they accept it as a natural cycle that some employees need to move through?

Ideally, we want our employees to be as well adjusted, productive, and happy as possible. This is going to lead to better workforce retention and engagement. There are enormous benefits for employers by engage the team and supporting them to look after themselves.

Here are our tips:

*Trim to-do lists

When employees feel sluggish and unmotivated it’s not surprising that they might start falling behind on their to-do list or missing deadlines. Often you can look at their KPIs or performance from last year and see exactly the same problem. That’s when you know there’s a pattern that you need to address, and you should reevaluate their workload. Or as Therese Ravell says, “check what’s in their suitcase”.

What she means by this is that when you’re not operating at your 100 per cent, and you overload yourself, and are more likely to drop the ball in front of others or push yourself to breaking point. In other words, your suitcase is going to bust or you’re going to have to pull something out in front of everyone in the ‘check-in line’, which can be really embarrassing.

Instead, pack your day like you would a suitcase. Put the big things in first – such as the tasks you have to get done – then fill in the gaps with the smaller things that require less time, such as administrative work.

Assisting an employee to trim their to-do list can help them feel more in control of their time. It will also reduce the likelihood of feeling overwhelmed with the tasks they need to complete.

*Salute the sun

Our bodies produce a hormone called melatonin making us feel drowsy and helps us to sleep. In winter, with the shorter days, our melatonin production is often out of whack with our routine. This means sometimes our bodies are still producing melatonin in the morning when we’re trying to get ready for the day, leading us to feel sluggish and unmotivated.

The natural remedy to this is light.

In the workplace, make sure blinds are open so plenty of sunlight can pour in. If it tends to be dark in your workplace, lamps and overhead lights will do. Light therapy lamps claim to treat SAD, but these should only be used with the guidance of a medical professional.

In a remote environment, keeping an eye on light levels can be more difficult. In this case, Therese suggests braving the cold and having outdoor virtual meetings.

We should also fight the urge to make every meeting a video call as a traditional phone call gives the person the option to leave their workspace, go for a walk and find some sunlight.

*Stay healthy

Mental health is very closely related to physical health, so it’s important to remind staff to stay active and break up work with a 30-minute walk if possible.

Getting moving is just one aspect of staying healthy. Good sleep health is also important.

With our oversupply of melatonin production, sleep can become disrupted. People experiencing SAD often also suffer sleep problems. This can include insomnia, restless sleep and nightmares.

Employers can help by encouraging employees to disconnect, suggests Titov. Make sure employees log off on time and shut off from work altogether at the end of the day and that means no late night email checking.

*Have a break

At this time of year, many people take off for warmer climates.

“If work becomes tiring and employees are losing momentum then that’s a signal that they need to take a break and recover,” says Titov.

A staycation can also provide benefits, he adds. This includes taking time off to do renovations around the house. It may not be the same as a holiday, but it’s still going to provide quite a lot of benefits.

Employers can help by actively encouraging employees to take time off where appropriate. Also, ensure employees are aware of your organisation’s leave policies and how they can apply for it.

It’s important to remind employees to be kind to themselves if they are experiencing SAD or the winter blues. Poor mental health can make your brain feel fuzzy and slow. Until the issue is resolved, they’re unlikely to be at their peak performance level, so managers and colleagues needs to be prepared to support them through that.

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