Workplace Wellbeing

Finding the Light: How to Support Employees Navigating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Explore how HR leaders can identify, address, and support employees struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms.

Written by
photo authr
Ariel Landrum
Spring Health Provider
Clinically reviewed by
photo authr
A stressed man sits at his desk in the dark at the office

Jump to section

    As the leaves turn and the days get shorter, a subtle yet often overlooked challenge unfolds in the workplace.

    Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), extending beyond the winter blues, manifests as a recurring seasonal depression characterized by oversleeping, weight gain, and a loss of pleasure in daily activities. It impacts millions, particularly affecting women and those in regions with less winter sunlight, like Alaska and New England. 

    HR leaders must understand SAD, not solely for the well-being of employees, but also to sustain a lively and productive workplace culture.

    The impact of SAD on employees and the workplace

    SAD poses a substantial challenge to workplace dynamics. It can significantly impact employee well-being, productivity, and social interactions. Symptoms typically start in the fall and persist through winter, potentially disrupting work performance and relationships. 

    Employees with SAD may be up to four times more likely to struggle with concentration, productivity, and increased absenteeism, directly impacting the bottom line. 

    SAD can manifest through changes in appetite, fatigue, concentration difficulties, irritability, persistent low mood, loss of interest in activities, increased desire for sleep, and avoidance of social situations. These symptoms can vary in intensity and may include tension, stress, or a sense of hopelessness.

    Given SAD’s cyclical nature spanning four to five months, it’s not a passing concern but a recurring seasonal obstacle, underscoring the need for proactive strategies.

    Supportive strategies for SAD

    Implementing a SAD awareness program

    An effective Seasonal Affective Disorder awareness program involves a comprehensive approach that educates and actively supports employees throughout the dark months. A robust SAD awareness program begins with education, ensuring employees and managers understand the disorder. 

    Consider including these strategies: 

    • Maximizing natural light: Encourage outdoor walks to increase vitamin D exposure and consider reorganizing office spaces to enhance natural light for those affected by SAD​​.
    • Flexible work arrangements: Adapt work schedules to accommodate employees' mental health needs, such as allowing remote work or flexible hours to maximize exposure​​ to daylight.
    • Wellness culture: Cultivate a workplace culture that promotes self-care and mental health awareness. This may involve wellness programs, healthy activity incentives, and onsite exercise equipment access​​.
    • Encouraging medical consultation: Advocate for employees to consult healthcare professionals regarding potential vitamin deficiencies that may worsen SAD symptoms, utilizing company health benefits to address these concerns. 
    • Normalize symptoms: Leverage internal communications to share information and personal stories about SAD to normalize what affected employees are experiencing.
    • Mental health days: Foster an environment where mental health days are encouraged without stigma.
    • Employee assistance programs (EAPs): Implement or promote EAPs that offer counseling and resources for various issues, including SAD. This can enhance disorder management and overall productivity​​.

    Finally, offering treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as part of your health plan offers a validated approach to helping employees cope with SAD.

    An intersectional approach to SAD

    It’s crucial for leaders to recognize the diverse challenges associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder and adopt an intersectional approach. 

    Employees from marginalized groups may experience compounded stressors, such as discrimination or limited mental health resources, amplifying the impact of SAD symptoms. Women, who are often more susceptible to SAD, may also contend with additional pressures from balancing multiple roles, exacerbating their condition. 

    Understanding and addressing these layered challenges underscores the need for empathetic and nuanced support systems for HR leaders. This approach ensures equitable access to mental health resources, empowering all employees to manage their well-being effectively.

    Treatment and support for SAD

    Utilize light therapy

    As the days shorten, light becomes a precious resource, offering significant relief for those grappling with SAD. Light therapy—a cornerstone treatment for SAD—has shown promising results, often providing relief to patients within a week of starting treatment, with minimal side effects.​​

    Light boxes must be specifically designed for SAD, emitting a bright white light that blocks over 99% of UV rays, minimizing the risk of skin and eye damage. The Mayo Clinic recommends consulting with a doctor and placing the light box about 12 to 30 inches away, at or slightly above eye level, but not directly in the line of sight. Starting with 15-minute sessions and gradually increasing to 30 minutes each morning is suggested​​.

    Incorporating outdoor exercise and maximizing indoor brightness by opening window shades can further alleviate symptoms. For persistent symptoms, it’s advisable to explore additional treatments such as psychotherapy or antidepressants​​.

    Integrating light therapy into daily routines serves as a non-invasive and effective means to restore well-being for employees struggling with SAD.

    6 wellness strategies for managing SAD

    Research reveals several ways to encourage employees to holistically address SAD symptoms:

    • Seek out natural sunlight whenever possible
    • Like light therapy, regular exercise can invigorate both body and mind, potentially matching the efficacy of medication
    • Prioritize connecting with family and friends 
    • A nutrient-balanced diet can fuel more consistent energy levels
    • Use stress management techniques 
    • Establish clear work-life boundaries

    Above all else, understand that, like other forms of depression, SAD is treatable, and recovery is within reach for everyone​​.

    Embracing the light

    As our workplaces evolve, our approach to health and well-being must transform accordingly. Addressing and understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder transcends a seasonal commitment. It's an ongoing effort to cultivate resilience and vitality within our teams. 

    The dedication to supporting employees through SAD—whether by maximizing natural light, advocating for light therapy access, promoting flexible work arrangements, or fostering a culture of wellness—underscores the pivotal role of HR. 

    Let’s take action now, laying the foundation for proactive strategies to ensure our organizations remain vibrant throughout every season. In doing so, we not only promise a healthier, happier tomorrow, but also affirm our commitment to the nuanced needs of every employee.

    Holiday stress is another challenge employees face at the height of the SAD season. Explore practical strategies for managing holiday stress—taking care of your mental health first, so you can effectively support employees.

    About the Author
    photo authr
    Ariel Landrum
    Spring Health Provider

    Ariel Landrum is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Art Therapist. She is a proud Cebuano Filipino American currently practicing teletherapy out of California. Ariel is a self-identified "geek therapist" who uses her client's passions and fandoms to create connections, strengthen identification, and support their individuality. She specializes in working with military members and their families, the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and survivors of sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse.

    About the clinical reviewer
    photo authr

    Stay connected to the latest in mental health!

    Our newsletter delivers expert insights, personal stories, and practical strategies straight to your inbox. Join us to better support your team’s mental health.