Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) has become increasingly recognised as an issue that affects many individuals. In the past it was referred to as winter blues and there was an assumption that anyone who felt a bit low during the winter months would soon get over it.
Recently however people have come to realise that the issue is far more serious than a dip in energy and enthusiasm for life, and indeed the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) suggests the treatment for SAD should be the same as for other forms of depression.
In addition to being a serious condition, it’s also one that can affect sufferers for several months of the year, which means that even if symptoms are relatively low level, they can have a prolonged effect on a person’s quality of life, and this will in turn affect those around each individual, including family members, friends and colleagues.
Is there a solution?
The causes of SAD aren’t fully understood but it appears to be related to hormonal changes that take place as a result of reduced hours of daylight. While sufferers may not have control over the hormonal changes triggered by dark winter days, they can make decisions with their day-to-day lifestyle choices that can minimise the impact of these hormones.
7 Simple steps to reduce the feelings of SAD
1) Be aware of food and drinks that will drain you of energy
This means limiting coffees, fizzy drinks and sugary snacks. It can be tempting to opt for these items for a quick pick me up, but with any rapid rise in blood sugar comes a subsequent crash, resulting in an exaggerated feeling of low energy.
Instead aim to follow a routine of eating regularly through the day with healthy choices and moderate portion sizes.
Check out our healthy eating resources for some ideas.
2) Stay hydrated throughout the day
Dehydration can heighten feelings of lethargy. Set an alarm to remind you to drink water every 30-60 minutes.
3) Get outside whenever you can
A couple of breaks during the day to get some sunlight and a little bit of fresh air and activity can do wonders for boosting mood, and not just because it increases the amount of daylight you’ll be exposed to.
Taking breaks through the day can clear the head and help to boost creativity and problem solving. If you're hesitant about taking time away from work during the day, use your outdoor breaks to mull over a work issue on the move. Or use a daylight break as a silent walk or digital detox - you'll be amazed how effective this can be for improving overall effectiveness across the day.
4) Maintain your exercise routine
If you're struggling through winter it can be tempting to let your exercise routine slide but it's important to resist this temptation. Exercise will release feel-good hormones that will lift your daily mood. Instead of giving up on activity, design a winter workout plan that suits the season.
This might mean changing the time of your outdoor workout to maximise daylight exposure. Or planning a selection of short indoor workouts in case the weather is really unappealing to you. Or invest in some good outdoor workout gear so that you're not bothered by the weather.
Whatever it takes, make some form of exercise a priority throughout the winter months!
5) Adapt your schedule to allow you time to get outside and get some light
This may mean getting up earlier to get ahead of the day and, while extending the time you spend in the morning darkness may seem counter intuitive, if it frees you up to soak up some valuable light later in the day it’ll be worth it.
Remember that if you're getting up earlier you'll need to get to sleep a bit earlier to protect the right amount of sleep for you and keep in mind that your sleep hours may need to be a little longer during the winter. We're not suggesting hibernating but for many people trying to stick with the sleep hours that work for them during the summer can be challenging. Experiment with the sleep routines that work for you at different times of the year.
6) Light boxes have been shown to help many SAD sufferers so it’s worth experimenting with this idea as a possible solution.
7) As with all conditions that affect mood, the general advice is to avoid self-medication, particularly with alcohol or recreational drugs. A drink or two may seem like the answer to take the edge off the symptoms for a while but this often exacerbates the situation in the medium to long term.
How can businesses help?
Organisations have a role to play in supporting SAD sufferers in much the same way as they do with supporting general staff health and wellbeing. They can provide education on the condition and ensure staff have access to a wide range of healthy, mood-boosting choices with what they eat and drink.
They can offer opportunities and incentives for employees to get active within the working day, and reduce pressure by considering a flexible approach that allows staff to mange their time so they can end each day having achieved all their objectives, both personal and professional.
If this means allowing staff the chance to get active, eat well, see some daylight, and balance their life as well as carry out their role at work, clear communication of expectations on both sides can pay huge dividends with getting the best out of people through what can be a challenging time for them.
The final thing an organisation can do is to make counselling or therapy available as they might for other forms of depression.
As with all wellbeing initiatives, messages need to be clear, consistent and practical so that staff are aware of the right choices to make each day, and feel motivated to make these choices.