Every year when the clocks fall back, grumbling about how quickly night falls starts. But beyond blaming daylight saving time (which actually ends in the fall, so we’re now on regular time) the days simply get shorter in the fall and winter in the Northern Hemisphere thanks to the tilt of the Earth’s axis. For some, experiencing less daylight can seriously affect mental health. In fact, during fall and winter many adults experience a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Employers need to be aware about SAD as it can impact their workers’ productivity and general wellbeing. Even someone who showed no mental health challenges during the rest of the year can be impacted when the days during the winter months.  

What is SAD? 

Seasonal Affective Disorder, sometimes called SAD or seasonal depression, is a specific type of depression recognized by the American Psychiatry Association (APA). It affects about 5% of adult Americans a year and can be debilitating for those who suffer from it.  

SAD is: 

  • A depression that settles in from late fall through the winter, the most difficult months being January and February 
  • Four times more likely in women 
  • Likely to onset between the ages of 18 and 30 
  • More common in people who live far from the equator 

SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter, according to the APA. When seasons change, people with SAD experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule. It’s important to note that SAD can also occur in the summer, although it is much less common. 

Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Depression 

There are several symptoms of SAD, according to the Mayo Clinic, and can range from being very mild to very severe. Symptoms include: 

  • Feeling listless, sad or down most of the day, nearly every day 
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed 
  • Having low energy and feeling sluggish 
  • Having problems with sleeping too much 
  • Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain 
  • Having difficulty concentrating 
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty 
  • Having thoughts of not wanting to live 

People who have bipolar disorder are at an increased risk of seasonal affective disorder. In some people with bipolar disorder, episodes of mania may be linked to a specific season. 

How Does SAD Interact with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Other Regulations? 

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), depression – including SAD – is protected by the ADA. Because of that distinction, remember: 

  • It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of a mental health condition. 
  • Employers may need to make accommodations to support employees with SAD. 
  • Employers cannot fire employees based on the condition, but instead have objective evidence the employee cannot perform job duties even with reasonable accommodations. 

Action Plan for HR Professionals 

Mental health issues affect some 50 million Americans, according to Mental Health America, but construction workers are most susceptible than most. The construction industry ranks second for suicide rates among all other industries. Employers need to be even more alert in the winter months, especially as employees don’t always seek help. 

The ADA dictates some matters in handling employees with SAD, but there are many ways to create a more compassionate and employee-friendly environment. 

  • Listen without judgment and know how to check in with a struggling employee. 
  • Use preventative measures when possible: 
    • Embrace a company culture that keeps stress levels low (stress is a SAD risk factor). 
    • Take away the stigma of depression by making mental health a priority in the workplace. 
    • For those working indoors, let as much natural light into the workspace as possible to amp up natural circadian rhythms. 
  • Don’t expect details. According to the EEOC, employers can’t ask about health issues unless: 
    • The employee asks for reasonable accommodation. 
    • The same questions are asked of everyone during the post-offer, pre-hire stage. 
    • It is part of an affirmative action program for people with disabilities (applicants can choose not to respond). 
    • There is objective on-the-job evidence that the employee isn’t doing their job or is a safety risk due to the condition. 
  • Offer common SAD accommodations, such as: 
    • Light therapy boxes
    • Moving the employee to a spot that gets better sun exposure 
    • Extending outdoor breaks 
    • Changing the employee’s schedule 
    • Offering leave for treatment 
  • Inform your employee about the company’s mental health benefits, such as your Employee Assistance Program. 
  • Implement a “return-to-work” program that formalizes the process, perhaps with reduced hours and remote working when possible. 

With many companies striving to hang on to valuable employees and provide them with a customer-like experience, being prepared to address health conditions like depression and SAD is critical to your employer brand and your retention strategy. By doing it well, you’re not only creating a culture of support and wellness, but you’re also maximizing your investment in your people.   

This article is meant to assist HR professionals in addressing SAD in the workplace. It is not health or legal advice. If you think you may be suffering from SAD, contact your healthcare provider. 


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