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The impact of seasonal affective disorder on workplace productivity

Updated: Sep 1, 2023


Most of us are familiar with the term Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. For those of you who are not, SAD is cyclical pattern of depression that correlates closely to the time of year. Sometimes referred to as ‘winter depression’, SAD tends to be more apparent and severe during the winter months, with the sun rising later and setting earlier, meaning we are exposed to significantly less sunlight than the summer months.





We are forever looking at our social media feeds and seeing those staged photos of some idiot sat posing on a sun lounger on the beach, with their MacBook open, sipping on some form of diabetes inducing chemical monstrosity, followed by ‘How I ditched my 9-5 office job and now work remotely for 4 minutes a day from a beach in Dubai’ …yeah, sure.

What makes it worse is 90% of the time we come across these types of photos, we proceed to look out of the nearest window to yet another day of grey skies and torrential down rain, and that’s if we’re lucky enough to even have windows in the office! The reality is that a large percentage of the UK workforce have to navigate a 3-4 month period of pretty miserable weather, less daylight hours, and the low moods and lack of motivation that come with both.

In a pre-covid Forbes article published in 2020 it was estimated that 10,000,000 Americans suffered from a number of symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which we can only imagine were made worse once lockdown measures were enforced. Now, in a post covid business climate of hybrid working models and teams being less connected, it is important to understand how to deal with the potential low moods and short tempers that come this time of year as the days continue to get shorter and shorter.

Symptoms of SAD can vary person to person, some of the most common ones are:


- Persistent low mood
- A decrease in engagement with activities that usually bring fulfilment
- Increasingly irritability
- Feelings of despair, guilt or worthlessness
- Lethargy (lacking in energy) and wanting to sleep through the day
- Sleeping for longer than normal
- Increased sugar/carbohydrate cravings
- Loss of concentration
- Lack of sex drive

For some individuals, a number of these symptoms can present themselves very severely and impact day to day life, this includes workplace productivity and the ability to engage with daily tasks (NHS 2022).

The exact science behind what causes SAD is up for debate, but it is commonly thought that our hormones play a big part on whether or not we suffer from it. As we are getting less sunlight in the winter months our bodies produce less serotonin which is our mood, apetite and sleep regulating hormone. We may also begin to produce excess serotonin, which is the sleep hormone, making us feel more sleepy and lethargic than normal. It is important not to disregard SAD, and it should be treated the same way as any other mental illness, as it can lead to further complications including acute anxiety, eating disorders and social withdrawal.





Poor mental health = poor physical health


As you can imagine, when you’re not 100% on your game mentally then you’re more than likely going to perform sub-optimally physically as well. There’s a chance you’ll be more prone to injury and/or illness, which results in absence from work, costing companies millions annually. So if you’re a little bit more groggy than usual, that 4th coffee in the last 2 hours isn’t really touching the sides, and having missed the big yellow ‘wet floor’ sign in front of you proceed to fall over and smash your arm up, there’s a good chance you’re going to be off work for a couple of days…and this costs £££. A study by private health insurer Vitality concluded that mental and/or physical health (or lack thereof) accounted for 84% of direct impact in reduced productivity in the workplace. So our mental and physical health is more important to our day to day performance than we think!

So what can we do to limit the damage done by mother nature and the eternal dark that is British winter? It all starts with looking at our immediate work environment and ensuring we have a supportive management structure. It’s more than just an attractive healthcare package or discounted health club memberships, its building a supportive management culture, an inclusive working environment and reinforcing overall job satisfaction.

There are many ways to achieve this, from more flexible working arrangements, providing healthy food options in the office, increasing education around health and wellbeing topics, and quite simply encouraging exercise and physical activity. The best way to establish what is best is by giving staff the forum in which to express what they need, be open about SAD and prioritise time with team members so that staff feel valued and are more comfortable opening up about what could be a sensitive topic


Lunar Lethargy


Feeling sluggish…a distinct lack of energy…a desire to stay in bed all weekend following a full working week…these are all common symptoms of SAD. Obviously the more severe the symptoms the harder it is to be productive, it can also make simple day to day tasks much more challenging than they are usually.

Some simple things to try to help alleviate symptoms include taking short, regular breaks away from your desk, even if it means walking to the coffee machine or water cooler, just get up and move around more than you would usually. You could also try using a standing desk, sounds counter productive I know but completing work related tasks from a standing position has been proven to yield better results when looking at concentration span and productivity. Finally taking a walk on your break instead of staying in the office could also help, taking 10-15 to get outside is more than enough time to keep you feeling a bit more alert and engaged with the tasks you need to complete.

Just 5 more minutes…*wakes up 1 hour later*


It’s a struggle getting out of bed at the best of times. Regardless how early you get to bed the night before, its always a battle between the pillow and the snooze button, and the pillow usually wins (which is why I set 15 alarms at 5 minute intervals to make sure I get out of bed). Waking up in the morning becomes increasingly difficult in the winter months, its colder, its darker, your bed feels warmer, its just a much nicer place to be. Unfortunately, if you frequently turn off your alarm or sleep through it altogether, this is a sign that you may be suffering from SAD. Whilst it may not seem like much of a big deal, consistently disrupting your wake routine can throw your circadian rhythm out of sync, as well as quite simply just making you late for work, or having to skip breakfast (best meal of the day so why on earth would you risk skipping it), or simply having to rush around in the morning which keeps you in a high stress state long after you wake up.

The best thing to do is to try your absolute best to keep your usual morning routine. As difficult as this may be in the winter months, its important to ensure that your wake up time is as consistent as possible. To make the process of waking up easier, try some things like immediately jumping in the shower, or putting the kettle on, or doing some simple stretches or bodyweight exercises to get your blood pumping a little bit, this will help you wake up properly a little bit quicker and help keep you in routine.

Sorry, what did you say?


Not being able to concentrate fully, or to your usual capacity is yet another symptom of SAD. This can obviously impact overall productivity, even to the point where you mishear/misread tasks you are given therefore don’t fully understand what it is you need to do. Instead of focusing on tasks or jobs, your mind starts to wander and you find yourself procrastinating and focusing on less important things. You may also find that you are more easily distracted, and the slightest distraction from your current task can put you back hours rather than minutes.

A good way to try and combat this is to practice mindfulness techniques. This starts by eliminating as many distractions as you possibly can. This could be taking yourself off to a quieter part of the office, turning off your smart phone, using earbuds as you work, what ever it is you can do to help you focus on the task at hand. It’s important to remember that this isn’t something you can fix in one day at the office, it will take time, and may feel hopeless to begin with. If you find yourself really struggling to refocus then take yourself away from your desk and out for a walk, see if this helps your mind reset and try again.

To summarise, there isn't much we can do about the climate we live in, and the miserable weather that comes with it (its literally raining as I type this), but what we can do is be aware of the signs and symptoms of SAD, and try to be more proactive instead of reactive in order to keep the negative impacts to a minimum. That being said, I already can't wait for next summer, but we've got 6 months of dark nights and even darker mornings to navigate first, so if you are struggling, there are plenty of professionals, resources and insight around how to stay engaged and motivated during the long night (excuse the Game of Thrones quote), for any support around SAD or any other issues concerning your physical and mental wellbeing, please do not hesitate to reach out.



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