Simon Blake offers advice on how to best support employees in these darker, colder months.
s winter begins and the days get shorter, many workers find themselves setting off and returning home in the dark. People who work predominately inside, such as office workers, are exposed to little sunlight during the winter months, which can negatively impact their mental health and wellbeing.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is often described as winter depression because it typically follows a seasonal pattern. The lack of sunlight in the autumn and winter is thought to limit the amount of serotonin the brain produces, lowering our mood.
It can also impact our sleeping pattern as lower light levels disrupt our internal body clock. However, a minority of people may experience symptoms of SAD during the summer and feel better during the winter.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
The symptoms of SAD can affect people’s mood and performance in the workplace, and the NHS predicts that the disorder affects around one in 15 people.
Common symptoms include a persistent low mood, a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, irritability, and feeling lethargic during the day.
However, there are a number of small steps that organisations can take to support employees with their mental health and wellbeing during the winter months, which might be particularly beneficial to those affected by SAD.
Encourage employees to get some sunlight
It is important that employees are exposed to sunlight during the working day. Depending on the workplace, employers may be able to adapt the working environment to make it lighter and airier – for example, opening blinds and curtains where possible.
It is also a good idea to provide SAD lamps if your office is particularly dark, as the bright light can affect levels of hormones and neurochemicals, positively impacting our mood.
In addition, fresh air and daylight can help boost energy levels, so employers should encourage walking catch-ups and remind employees to utilise nearby outdoor spaces at lunchtime.
Make it easier to eat well
Our physical and mental health is connected, so when we eat well, it can help boost our mood and improve our mental wellbeing.
With darker and colder days approaching, it can be tempting to indulge in too much coffee and foods high in sugar, such as biscuits and chocolate. Overdoing it on sugar, caffeine, or alcohol over the winter and festive period can lead to lower mood in the long term.
Providing employees with healthy snacks such as fruit, yogurt, or mixed nuts, can help them to maintain a balanced diet.
Organise an active team social
When it is dark and cold outside, often the last thing people want to do is get involved in physical activity. But exercise can significantly increase energy and concentration levels, especially during the winter months.
Research shows that physical activity releases feel-good hormones that can improve your mood and sleeping pattern, so why not organise an active social for the whole team?
The importance of downtime
All employers should take active steps to encourage employees to set aside regular downtime where they are not distracted by their work. CIPD research shows almost a quarter (23%) of workers in the UK struggle to book time off, and those that do may suffer from what’s being described as ‘leaveism’.
This can result in employees being unable to tune out, and so they might continue to work while on leave in order to catch up with outstanding tasks, or even cancel their annual leave at the last minute. During the winter months, people may be more prone to experiencing low mood, SAD, or other mental health issues.
However, it is important that employers support and protect the mental health and wellbeing of their employees all year round, by ensuring that wellbeing is woven into the fabric of the organisation.
About the author
Simon Blake is CEO of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. Visit https://mhfaengland.org for more information on how to create a mentally healthy workplace.