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Winter Blues: what to do about it

02 November 2016

As British summertime officially ends, some of us may be feeling as gloomy as the weather. Karen Jackson looks at Seasonal Affective Disorder, what you can do if you have it and how employers should support those affected.

As British summertime officially ends, some of us may be feeling as gloomy as the weather. Karen Jackson looks at Seasonal Affective Disorder, what you can do if you have it and how employers should support those affected.

For some people, the clocks going back means rather more than a signal that we are headed for winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a relatively common form of depression, also known as Winter Depression or Winter Blues, that occurs in the darker months of the year as the days get shorter and daylight becomes more scarce. In most cases, the advent of spring and summer will alleviate symptoms. But people working in offices with no access to natural sunlight might suffer SAD all year round.

The statistics vary on how common SAD is, with estimates varying from about seven per cent to about 30 per cent of the population, of which around 80 per cent are women. Symptoms include persistent low mood, a loss of interest or pleasure in everyday activities, irritable mood, feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness, lethargy and feeling sleepy during the day, wanting to sleep for longer than normal, craving carbs and sugar, and weight gain. SAD mostly causes discomfort rather than serious depressive symptoms, but in between three per cent and eight per cent of people, it can be a more severe condition, and may merit medical intervention.

What causes SAD?

The exact cause is not fully known, but the main prevailing theory is that lack of exposure to sunlight might cause the hypothalamus to produce too much melatonin – the hormone that makes us sleepy and is involved in jetlag. Combined with the loss of sunlight, this might also depress levels of serotonin production in the hypothalamus. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, sex drive and sleep, and reduced levels are linked to depression.

SAD also affects your internal body clock or circadian rhythm. Your body uses sunlight for many important bodily functions such as knowing when to wake up. Lower light levels in winter disrupt your body clock and can cause SAD symptoms. I can’t be the only person who feels ‘jetlagged’ for a week when the clocks go back and my body rhythm is temporarily out of synch!

What does SAD mean for law firms?

SAD can and does impact productivity and brain function. In a job which depends on being cerebral, such as the law, the disruption to work outputs might be significant. Law firms as employers need to consider what measures they can put in place to support employees during the winter months? Could you set up light boxes in an underused meeting room? Provide healthy, serotonin-boosting snacks, like bananas and nuts? Encourage staff to take lunch away from their desks, to make the most of the daylight?

Another thing law firms need to be aware of is whether SAD may amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Unlike clinical depression, it is unlikely to amount to a disability unless it has a significant impact on normal day-to-day activities and can be shown to be long term. For some people, the seriousness of symptoms of SAD might lead them to take anti-depressants during autumn and winter. Such people might well be considered disabled under the act.

What can I do about it?

Some people will have some of these symptoms at this time of year without them having any real impact, other than causing them to hit the snooze button rather too many times in the morning! For others, the symptoms will be quite severe and have a significant impact on life. If you think this might be you, you should see your GP to make sure that it is SAD and not a more serious underlying clinical issue – the symptoms listed could indicate underlying depression. But remember that in some cases, SAD itself can be serious and might require medical attention.

If you feel your mood really slipping don't ignore it. You might be one of the 20 per cent who needs a bit of help at this time of year. There's quite a lot you can do for yourself to combat milder symptoms of SAD – my six top tips are below.

1. Keep active

Getting outside in natural daylight is linked to improving SAD symptoms. Something as simple as a one hour walk at lunchtime in the sunlight can really help.

2. Keep warm

If you are excessively cold all the time, even when indoors and dressed appropriately, this won't help: being cold will increase depressive symptoms.

3. Eat well

A healthy diet can boost mood. Eat plenty of fruit – especially berries – and veg, ensure you’re getting enough protein, cut down on caffeine and sugar, and avoid heavy carbs and too much alcohol (boring, I know!). Some foods even boost serotonin levels – try bananas, turkey, nuts, seeds and dark chocolate – but probably not at the same time! You can find a lot of information about serotonin-boosting foods online.

4. Boost your Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is associated with SAD, so try a supplement. D3 is the most accessible and reliable form of vitamin D and can be bought online. You cannot overdose on it but if your energy levels are flagging it can really give a boost. The SAD Association and Mind both have useful online resources.

5. Get a light box

Light therapy is known to be effective for SAD, but no-one really understands why. Light boxes are not usually available on the NHS, but can be bought online and are available in white and blue light. Your GP will advise which is most suitable for you. Time spent in front of a light box every day can be beneficial. Alarm clocks that simulate a natural dawn so that you wake up more gently (Lumie, for example) can also help.

6. Go to your GP

If these remedies don’t help, you might need to add anti-depressants for a short period to get you through the worst months. If you are worried about how you are feeling, don't self-diagnose: get it checked out by a GP. If you have an occupational health facility at work, go and see them, too.

Blog: Five steps to wellbeing

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Tags: staff | stress | wellbeing | productivity

About the author

Karen Jackson is a disability discrimination solicitor at her own firm, didlaw. She specialises in disability and illness in the workplace and is recognised as one of the leading lawyers in this field. In 2013 the Law Society commissioned Karen to write her book: Disability Discrimination: Law and Case Management.
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