As winter draws near, and the days get shorter, the days of gin and tonics on the terrace have faded away, and instead we face battling through the wind in our coats and scarves to get into work.
It is not uncommon for us to struggle to wake up in the morning, causing our energy levels and concentration to lower and our positive outlooks to momentarily fade after the summer ends. But, for around 1 in 15 people, it can be a condition warranting a diagnosis – Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
SAD is a recognised mental health disorder, which is more common in the UK where there is a variation in weather and daylight hours across the seasons – the closer you are to the equator, the less common SAD is (so maybe we should all relocate to the Caribbean for the winter..?) SAD is most common between September and November.
More than just “winter blues”, SAD is caused by lower light levels, which can decrease serotonin levels and increase melatonin levels. Essentially, those with SAD are more susceptible to depression and more fatigued. SAD can cause severe depression, anxiety, lack of energy and concentration and panic attacks. In severe cases, employees with SAD may require significant time off work to adjust to.
In terms of whether SAD would constitute a disability (and therefore give rise to possible discrimination issues or reasonable adjustment requirements, there is no precedent where SAD has been found to be a disability. The main reason which we would argue it would not be a disability would be that to be legally disabled under the Act you must have a mental or physical impairment that has a “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect on your ability to do normal day to day activities. SAD would probably fail at the “long-term” limb of this test.
Regardless of whether it is a disability, though, employers should still consider workplace adjustments which may either assist an employee with SAD, or just generally assist employees to settle into winter. These include:
- Installing light boxes or seasonal lamps in the office, which are designed to simulate sunshine and increase production of serotonin;
- Encourage employees to talk about their mental health generally, but especially ask them to talk about how they are finding the adjustment to winter;
- Try and make the office as light and bright as possible; avoid dark colours or patterns on the walls, where possible;
- Encourage employees to spend time outside in the fresh air, or at least sitting near to the windows with access to natural light;
- Provide fresh fruit and encourage exercise;
- Encourage employees to take regular breaks; and
- Consider adjusting office hours, so that employees are able to leave the office before it gets dark at night.
Written by Alicia Collinson