Are you SAD at work?

Posted in : HR Updates on 30 October 2018
Olga Pollock
firmus energy
Issues covered:

When the clocks went back at the end of October I have to admit I felt a pang of sadness at the prospect of getting up for work in the dark and coming home in the dark. Sure enough I experience the same feeling every year only to quickly come to terms with the new season and simply 'get on with it'.

There's even a certain comfort that comes with the dark, winter evenings when you are indoors with the fire on and a hot mug of tea looking outside at the ice or snow. For some of us however it's not so easy to simply shake off that sadness that comes when the daylight hours get shorter. According to research, around as many as 1 in 15 people in the UK suffer from 'Seasonal Affective Disorder' or SAD.

SAD is a recognised medical disorder associated with the changes in seasons and most common in the autumn and winter months in the UK as it is linked to lack of sunlight. While there is no definitive agreement on what causes the disorder there are certain factors that lead to SAD including the effects of lack of light on the brain which controls sleep, appetite, temperature, mood and activity as well as chemical levels regulating mood and sleep.

As a form of depression, SAD is a mental health disorder and therefore should be treated in the same manner as any other mental health issue in the workplace. Very often employees suffering from mental health problems will only speak to their employer after they have spoken to their GP. In other words, after they have experienced symptoms to an extent that they feel the need to seek medical help.

But proactive employers should be creating an open culture where staff feel they can come and talk to their manager without fear of reprisal. We need to be looking out for the signs of SAD, in the same way that we should be doing so for mental health generally. This may include increased absenteeism of staff during the winter months, typically between September and November. An employee may be showing signs of lack of energy above and beyond just the morning caffeine deficiency. Or it may be someone, who normally works efficiently suddenly starts to struggle to complete everyday tasks and is making basic mistakes or forgetting things. Also keep an eye out for reduced concentration levels for example, during meetings or someone who is comfort eating throughout the day. Changes in mood such as aggressive or even argumentative behaviour may also be a sign that something isn't quite right. Of course, any of these symptoms in isolation will not necessarily be cause for concern but we should be looking for persistent changes in a person's normal characteristics.

When we talk about culture, it is really important to equip our managers to effectively deal and respond to mental health issues at work. HR should not be the go-to person for staff to approach. We are too far removed from the employment relationship and often are associated with 'processes' and disciplinary action so this is where line managers are key in the process. Line managers are in the best position to spot the signs of mental health problems and employees should feel comfortable approaching them. But managers need training to do this with confidence and should be supported by a wider mental health strategy throughout the organisation.

Other steps that employers can take to support people suffering from SAD include:

  • The use of Occupational Health is essential in supporting employees with a range of health issues. It is important to chose an OH provider that is thorough and will provide sound, in-depth advice to both the referred employee and the employer. OH can provide advice on reasonable adjustments and workplace accommodations to help keep people at work or help them return to work.
  • The working environment is important. Create a well-lit office with natural light. Keep blinds open and move someone suffering from SAD to a desk beside the window if possible.
  • Encourage staff to get outside during their breaks, even if it is only for 10 minutes. Why not set up a walking club at lunch time? This has the added benefit of not only allowing staff the opportunity to get outside into the sunlight (yes even on an overcast day) but also having a chat with colleagues. Also great for culture!
  • Be mindful of workload. Copious amounts of work may lead to symptoms of stress which in turn can exacerbate the symptoms of SAD.
  • Flexible working may allow an employee to adjust their working pattern to perhaps start later when they experience sleep problems.
  • Put health and wellbeing initiatives in place that support mental health. Mindfulness sessions are a great way to promote positive mental health. Also provide access to online resources (e.g. online NHS Information). Employee Assistance Programmes are equally important to have in place.
  • Promote advice and support helplines and charities such as Mind, a mental health charity (T: 0300 123 3393), Action Mental Health (T: 028 9182 8494) AWARE NI (T: 028 9035 7820), or (UK-based; E:

As the saying goes, prevention is better than a cure so by raising awareness of support mechanisms to employees this could lead to a reduction in the number of employees absent from work due to symptoms of SAD.

Useful reading:

How to help workers with seasonal affective disorder 

This article is correct at 30/10/2018

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Olga Pollock
firmus energy

The main content of this article was provided by Olga Pollock. Contact telephone number is +44 (0)79 7389 3448 or email

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