Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), often characterised as ‘winter depression’, is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. It’s more than just “winter blues”. The symptoms can be distressing, overwhelming, and can interfere with daily functioning. 

SAD usually begins in late autumn or early winter and goes away during the spring and summer. It’s not uncommon for people to experience symptoms starting in the autumn and continue into the winter months, draining their energy and causing mood swings. 

While exact causes are unknown, it’s generally linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. The main theory is that a lack of sunlight might affect a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and cause an increase in the production of melatonin (making us sleepier) and a reduction of serotonin (affecting our mood).

Seasonal Affective Disorder

The impact of SAD can be significant. It can make an individual feel; consistent low moods, lack of interest in everyday activities, and feel lethargic, amongst other symptoms. The difference between SAD and other types of depression lies in the seasonal pattern. If you’ve noticed a pattern for at least two consecutive years, it’s possible you may have SAD. 

At PMAC, we believe understanding is the first step in managing seasonal affective disorder. As employers, it’s crucial to recognise these patterns and provide support to employees who may be affected. We offer mental health and wellbeing training to UK businesses, aimed at promoting understanding, empathy, and proactive management of mental health in the workplace. 

Remember, if you or an employee is struggling with SAD, you’re not alone. Many people experience this disorder and there are resources and treatments available. Awareness and understanding are key to managing seasonal affective disorder effectively. 

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Scientific research points towards the impact of reduced sunlight during the shorter days of winter. This lack of sunlight can affect your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, causing feelings of depression. As daylight hours decrease, your body produces more melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel tired and lethargic. 

Coupled with this, the reduction in sunlight can lead to lower levels of serotonin. This neurotransmitter helps regulate mood, and low levels are associated with feelings of depression. Furthermore, the disruption to your body clock can also affect your sleep patterns and overall mood. 

Vitamin D deficiency, resulting from less sun exposure, may also play a role in SAD. Some studies suggest that Vitamin D may help increase levels of serotonin in the brain. 

It’s important to note that anyone can experience SAD. However, research suggests that SAD can be more common in women, people between the ages of 15 and 55, and those who live far from the equator or have a history of depression. Like any other form of depression, it’s a real condition that requires attention, understanding, and appropriate treatment. 

In order to manage SAD effectively, it’s crucial to recognise the signs and take steps to maintain mental wellbeing during the darker months. This might include receiving light therapy, ensuring your workplace has good natural light, maintaining a healthy diet, keeping regular sleep routines, and seeking professional help if needed. 

As an employer, understanding and managing seasonal affective disorder is paramount to maintaining a productive and healthy work environment. Making minor adjustments to the workplace and supporting affected employees can make a significant difference in managing this seasonal condition. 

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When does Seasonal Affective Disorder start, and how long does it last?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) typically begins in the late autumn and early winter months and can persist until spring and even early summer. However, the onset and duration can vary significantly from one individual to another and can even differ year on year for the same person.  

For those grappling with SAD, the shorter daylight hours and gloomy weather can trigger low mood, lack of motivation, and a profound sense of fatigue. These symptoms can make managing seasonal affective disorder quite challenging, particularly in the workplace, where productivity and engagement are paramount. 

Overcoming these obstacles starts with recognising the symptoms early on. Employers can support their staff by providing information about SAD, as well as equipping workplaces with adequate natural light, or lightboxes in darker spaces, and encouraging regular exercise and breaks outdoors where possible. 

Furthermore, it’s crucial to remember that SAD is more than ‘winter blues’. It’s a recognised subtype of major depressive disorder that requires appropriate care and management. If an employee shares that they’re struggling with SAD, it’s essential to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Resources for professional help, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy, should be made available, as these can be effective in managing seasonal affective disorder. 

Finally, fostering a supportive work environment where mental health is openly discussed and prioritised can make all the difference for those battling SAD. After all, a healthy workforce is not just productive; it’s also happier, more engaged, and more likely to stick around for the long term. 

The Benefits of Therapy

Therapy can be a powerful tool in helping individuals to manage symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It can serve as a safe space where individuals can discuss their thoughts and feelings with a professional – a crucial step towards understanding and managing their mental health.  

One key benefit of therapy is its ability to provide a fresh perspective on a difficult problem and point towards possible solutions. For individuals struggling with SAD, this could mean learning new coping mechanisms, such as cognitive behavioural techniques that challenge negative thought patterns and promote more balanced thinking about oneself and the world.  

Therapy can also help develop resilience against SAD. It can equip individuals with self-management tools that empower them to better cope with the stressors that could potentially trigger an episode. By enhancing one’s resilience, therapy lowers the likelihood of SAD significantly impacting one’s work performance and personal life.  

Therapy also brings the benefit of improving relationships, both in and out of the workplace. SAD can strain relationships with colleagues, family, and friends due to the mood changes it causes. By managing SAD effectively, individuals can maintain healthier relationships, which in turn provides a support network that can be instrumental in managing the disorder. 

The effectiveness of therapy in managing Seasonal Affective Disorder makes it a valuable investment for employers. By promoting access to therapeutic services, companies can help their employees effectively manage SAD, thereby improving overall wellbeing, productivity, and workplace harmony. Such initiatives do not only reflect a company’s commitment to employee wellbeing but also contribute to creating an inclusive and supportive work environment. 

In summary, therapy offers a multitude of benefits for those managing Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a tool that can empower individuals, promote healthier relationships, and foster a more supportive and productive workplace. 

Winter Landscape

Daily Sunlight for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Due to the very nature of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), one of the most effective ways of managing the condition is through consistent daily exposure to sunlight. 

The shorter daylight hours during autumn and winter months can significantly influence our circadian rhythms, or biological clocks, contributing to feelings of depression or drowsiness often associated with SAD. By ensuring daily exposure to sunlight, we can help recalibrate these rhythms, stabilising mood and enhancing overall wellbeing. 

Employees may benefit from taking short breaks outdoors when the sun is at its peak, typically between 12pm and 2pm during winter months. Encouraging a walk during lunchtime, even if it’s brief, can significantly boost daily sunlight exposure which in turn boosts employee’s moods.  

Additionally, creating a workplace environment with access to natural light can make a difference. Positioning workstations near windows or making use of transparent window coverings can allow more daylight to permeate the office, potentially improving mood and reducing symptoms of SAD. 

For employees who may not have access to ample natural light, especially those working night shifts or in windowless environments, light therapy could be a viable option. Light therapy involves exposure to a special type of light that mimics natural outdoor light, with numerous studies suggesting its effectiveness in easing SAD symptoms. 

Adopting these strategies can demonstrate an employer’s commitment to fostering a mentally healthy and supportive work environment, ultimately contributing to increased morale, reduced staff turnover, and improved productivity. Managing seasonal affective disorder in the workplace begins with understanding and empathy, leading to supportive measures that can make a real difference in the lives of employees. 

Pleasant Activity Scheduling

One effective method for managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is Pleasant Activity Scheduling (PAS). At its core, PAS is a behavioural therapy technique which encourages individuals to plan and engage in enjoyable activities, regardless of their emotional state, to improve overall mood. 

With the onset of winter, the shorter, darker days can lead to feelings of lethargy, increased need for sleep, and a general sense of melancholy. These are common symptoms of SAD and can significantly impact a person’s motivation to participate in activities they typically enjoy. This is where PAS can be instrumental. 

PAS requires individuals to make a conscious effort to schedule at least one pleasant activity into their daily routine. This can be anything from reading a book, going for a short walk, cooking a favourite meal, or catching up with a friend over a cup of tea. The goal of the activity isn’t necessarily to force enjoyment, but rather to encourage a sense of normality and routine which can often be disrupted by SAD. 

For employers, it’s essential to understand and support employees who may be experiencing SAD. Encourage your staff to incorporate PAS into their routines, potentially allowing flexibility in their work schedules to accommodate this. Open communication and understanding are key when managing Seasonal Affective Disorder in the workplace. 

Scheduling pleasant activities is not a cure-all solution, but it’s a proactive step towards managing the symptoms of SAD. The beauty of PAS lies in its simplicity; it’s a practical and accessible method for managing Seasonal Affective Disorder, promoting a sense of wellbeing even amidst winter’s gloom. 

Sickness fact

Exercise for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Incorporating regular exercise into your routine can have enormous benefits when it comes to managing symptoms of SAD. Exercise is well known for having a positive impact on our mental health, and it can be particularly helpful for those feeling the effects of SAD.  Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins— known as our body's natural mood elevators—which can help to alleviate symptoms of depression often associated with SAD. Whether it's a brisk walk during lunch break, a leisurely cycle through the park, or a vigorous session at the gym - getting moving can boost your mood and energy levels, counteracting the tiredness and low spirits that SAD can bring on. 

Furthermore, regular exercise can help regulate your sleep patterns, a common issue for people dealing with SAD. Physical activity tires your body out naturally, promoting a better and more restful night’s sleep. This, in turn, can enhance your mood and energy levels throughout the day. 

Additionally, many forms of exercise can be social activities. Attending a fitness class, joining a running club, or participating in team sports can provide opportunities to connect with others – offering the added benefit of social interaction, which can be particularly beneficial for those feeling isolated due to SAD. 

In the colder, darker months, it may be challenging to find the motivation to exercise, particularly when you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD. However, it’s important to keep in mind that even small steps can make a big difference. Start with short, manageable sessions and gradually build up as your energy levels and mood improve.  

Managing seasonal affective disorder is about discovering what works best for your mental and physical wellbeing, and exercise could be an invaluable element of your self-care routine. Remember, it’s always wise to consult with a healthcare professional before starting new exercise regime’s, especially if you’re dealing with mental health conditions like SAD. 


Journalling can be another highly effective tool for managing SAD. By providing an outlet for feelings, thoughts, and reflections, it can often reduce the weight of the emotional burden carried by those struggling with this cyclical condition.  

Used as a form of self-care, journalling is a low-cost, accessible method of mental health management that can be incorporated into daily routines without much difficulty. It provides a safe space for individuals to express their innermost thoughts and feelings, offering a cathartic release and a sense of relief from internalised stressors. 

For employers, promoting journalling as a part of mental health and wellbeing initiatives can be invaluable. It not only demonstrates an understanding and consideration for the complexities of mental health, particularly in relation to SAD, but also encourages employees to take proactive steps towards managing their wellbeing.  

Openly discussing the benefits of journalling for managing seasonal affective disorder can help to normalise conversations around mental health in the workplace. This can create a more supportive and understanding environment, where employees feel able to seek help and take steps to manage their mental wellbeing without fear of judgement. 

In terms of practical application, journalling can take many forms. For some, it may be a structured process, perhaps following mindfulness or gratitude prompts. For others, it may be a more free-flowing stream of consciousness. The key is to make it a regular practice, as the therapeutic benefits of journalling become more pronounced over time. 

In conclusion, the role of journalling in managing seasonal affective disorder should not be underestimated. Not only does it provide a lifeline for those struggling with SAD, but it also promotes a positive, proactive approach to mental health in the workplace. As an employer, fostering this kind of environment is not just good for your employees, it’s good for your business too. 

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