How to help your employees who suffer from seasonal affective disorder

By Srini Pillay

Lucy was a 49-year-old senior manager who found herself “out of it” at work. She couldn’t understand why she kept missing deadlines and why she felt so “blah” about everything. She attributed her insomnia and lack of energy to early menopause, and she felt guilty about her drop in productivity. But because Lucy had always been a top performer, her manager, Jack, noticed that something was wrong.

He called her into his office. After a brief chat, he recommended that she see a medical professional. Jack was sensitive to this because he had once thought he had depression, but found out that it was hypothyroidism.

That’s when Lucy came to see me. Being a psychiatrist and an executive coach, I could empathize with her plight from both a work and a personal perspective. But I soon saw that the five-year-old seasonal pattern of mood, energy, and concentration shifts was seasonal affective disorder, a subtype of depression.

In business, depression can lead to sick days, absenteeism, and presenteeism. This leads to a drop on productivity. Unfortunately, mental health in the workplace remains a stigma, even though it’s in the employer’s financial interests to pay attention.

If you’re a manager, don’t brush off seasonal mood changes as the “winter blues.” Here are 3 ways that you can help employees who are suffering from SAD.

1. Destigmatize SAD by talking about it openly

Not all managers are like Jack. Many avoid having those kinds of conversations because they can’t say for sure what is happening, are afraid to be intrusive or offensive, or are simply uncomfortable talking about it. Sometimes people treat SAD as a made-up disorder, and so those who do have it are reluctant to come forward when they need help. Dismissing the symptoms leads to increased loneliness, isolation, and guilt—all of which amplify SAD.

But SAD occurs in 1% to 2.4% of the general population, and it makes up 10%-20% of people who have recurrent depressions. Managers can legitimize the disorder by talking about SAD in medical terms and describing the underlying biology.

For instance, every fall, Jack included a reminder about SAD in the company newsletter. This helped raise the level of awareness in the company. He also made it a point to talk about SAD as the “seasonal serotonin-melatonin clock stopper” at the fall town hall meeting.

2. Employee assistance program screening

When people have SAD, they experience sadness, loss of energy, and irritability. At work, employees with SAD might appear tired, lethargic, or disinterested. They might find it difficult to concentrate, sleep more than usual, decrease their activity levels, withdraw from social situations, crave carbohydrates, and overeat. In its severe form, SAD can lead to suicidal ideation as well.

Jack made sure his company’s employee assistance program held a depression screening day for all employees in the late fall. He also specifically asked his senior management team to recommend people for screening if they detected any SAD symptoms. He also had a ready list of online resources that people could use to understand depression better.

Managers and executives who are interested in starting an EAP should look into hiring a professional service. The size and services of the screening program will depend on the company itself, but the key is to make participation normal and natural. When employees see managers make a strong effort toward destigmatization. Employees will be more comfortable engaging in EAPs. If your company cannot provide an EAP on-site, distribute information on local resources such as hospitals or community health centers where employees can have the same types of screening.

3. Address the conversation with care and sensitivity

Jack addressed anyone he suspected of having SAD privately in his office and emphasized that it would be better for the employee and the business if the employee received proper care. Leaders who see these symptoms in an employee should address it in private by showing their concern to the employee.

When people speak compassionately about depression, neurons in the listener’s brain automatically pick this up, and it makes the person feel better. By openly discussing SAD in intracompany channels, business leaders and managers can play a significant role in reducing the stigma.

Managers can say: “I’m concerned that we might be missing a very treatable illness called SAD. I think we should help you find help.” Managers should recommend that the employee see his or her primary care physician or a psychiatrist to rule out other illnesses and discuss remedies such as medication or therapy.

In terms of workplace responsibilities, the employee and the manager should work together to come up with realistic, comfortable goals to aid recovery. That could mean setting up deadlines on projects, having more frequent check-ins, or other strategies that fit. It might be best to decrease an employee’s workload for a short time until his or her recovery progresses.

SAD can sneak up on employees and disrupt their work lives. Mental illness is hard enough to address in the workplace, but SAD can be even more difficult because of its seasonal nature. Managers and leaders should work to destigmatize SAD, set up screening resources, and respectfully encourage employees to seek the proper treatment so you can help them and the company.

Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and the award-winning author of numerous books, including “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear,” and “Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders.”


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