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5 Tips for Dealing With Seasonal Affective Disorder at Work

A graphic that reads "5 Tips for Dealing With Seasonal Affective Disorder at Work" Above a stock photo of a white woman sitting at a desk with her head in her hands, looking distressed.

As the days get shorter, you may have noticed yourself feeling more and more tired, unable to concentrate, or even a sense of hopelessness. If that feels like a familiar pattern for you this time of year, you’re not alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mental health disorder that affects millions of people every year. This type of depression intensifies in the colder months and usually dissipates in the spring or summer. 

Since SAD is cyclical, it tends to be a yearly occurrence rather than a one-off depressive episode. This means that folks who live with Seasonal Affective Disorder often have to develop strategies to manage their condition over time. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder isn’t just the “winter blues”, it’s a diagnosable condition for which you can receive treatment. Common treatments for SAD include psychotherapy, medication, light lamps and vitamin D, among others.

Some signs you might be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder include: 

  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Loss of interest in things that bring you joy
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Feeling extra sensitive to stress or criticism
  • Increased feelings of anxiety
  • Having a shorter temper than normal

Here’s one thing we know for sure: everyone has mental health. We all live on a mental health spectrum, and we can move between wellness and illness over time.  Everyone we know is dealing with their own mental health fluctuations, and we all do our best to cope. Sometimes our ability to cope is strong and we can handle what gets thrown at us, and other times, things are hard, we aren’t as well-resourced, and we struggle. Our mental health isn’t something that can be turned on and off at the flip of a switch, and some days it’s going to impact the way work gets done. 

Most employers want their staff to feel happy and engaged in their work, and most people would like to feel happy and engaged at work. However, factors outside of our control, like SAD, can get in the way of maintaining that level of wellbeing in the workplace. 

Employees who deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder may notice that it can impact their work.

They may experience trouble concentrating, need increased time off or deliver lower productivity at times. Whether it’s due to challenges in mental health, physical health or societal systems, it is not a realistic expectation for humans to be at 100% all the time. Employers should accept and plan for variation in productivity, and to take into account the impact that SAD may have on staff at this time of year. 

In many workplaces, mental illness still carries a stigma, so people may not be forthcoming about their diagnoses at work. That’s why it’s crucial to start talking about mental health support before it’s a crisis, for leaders to model vulnerability, and to cultivate trusting relationships so that employees can feel safe sharing their concerns.  

If you know that you deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder, it can be helpful to have a plan in place for how you’ll cope on days when SAD is just too much.

Here are five ways to support yourself at work with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Take your breaks 

You’re entitled to a certain number of breaks, so do your best to take them. Taking regular breaks can help lower your stress level and give you a chance to regroup before your next task. You might use your breaks to text a friend, watch a funny TikTok, have a snack or a cup of tea, or catch up with an officemate either in person or over Slack or another chat. Some people do short bursts of work followed by a short break, and others prefer longer stretches of work with longer breaks between. Find what works for you when you’re dealing with SAD and go from there. 

Keep a light lamp at your desk 

One of the most common treatments for SAD is light therapy. You can buy SAD lamps at many office or home supply stores, and they range in sizes and intensities. It can be helpful to keep one on your desk at work so you can make it a habit to sit in front of the light every day. Using a SAD lamp can help negate some of the effects of shorter, darker days, so give it a try to see if it’s helpful for you. 

Keep moving

Movement is a great way to reset your brain and move through tough feelings. It can also be the  very last thing you want to do when you’re feeling crummy. However, movement doesn’t need to be painful or a punishment to be effective. Taking a walk on your lunch break or doing some gentle stretching are simple ways to move your body. Popping on a favorite song and dancing around your kitchen (or the office kitchen) can give you a quick burst of energy and put a smile on your face. If you have a hard time motivating yourself to move during the work day, see if you can find a walking or movement buddy in the office. Make plans to meet for a set time each day and hold each other accountable.  

Ask about flexible hours

After the last year, we’ve seen how many folks were able to transition to working from home or working in a slightly different capacity. If it’s possible for your position, ask your supervisor if it’s possible to change your shift or to do your work from home, especially when you’re experiencing the full brunt of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Maybe it’s possible to come in later, or to take a long lunch to go to therapy or take a walk. If it’s safe to do so, talk to your supervisor about how you’re feeling and work together to figure out accommodations that can support you. 

Be gentle with yourself

Remember, you don’t exist just to be productive at work. You’re a full person, with interests and loved ones and a life. If there are periods where work takes a back burner, that’s okay. You need to do what you need to do to take care of yourself, and you don’t need to apologize for that. If you’re feeling bad about a loss of productivity or shame for dealing with mental illness, try to be as compassionate with yourself as possible. How would you talk to a friend dealing with this? Try to use that kindness on yourself. 

As much as we might wish that we could check our mental health at the door some days, that’s just not possible. If you find that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is affecting your work, you’re not alone. Remember that SAD is not your fault, and that you are doing the best you can. If you’re looking for more ways to support mental health at work, try our Wellbeing at Work program.