Feeling exhausted and cooped up? Afraid that one more dark and dreary weekend will cause you a complete melt down? As the calendar confirms, we are a long way from spring flowers. It would seem normal to be a bit depressed. Yet many of us feel this way every year as the days get shorter and the light fades. This cyclical depression, called SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) probably affects many of your employees, causing lower productivity and missed days of work.
SAD affects an estimated half million people every winter between September and April, in particular during December, January, February and March. It is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter. For many people, SAD is a seriously disabling illness, preventing them from functioning normally without continuous medical treatment. For others, it is a mild but debilitating condition causing discomfort but not severe suffering. Physicians call this sub-syndromal SAD or ‘winter blues.’ And some experts think this is quite common, especially in the northern, colder part of the country.
What are the Symptoms?
The symptoms of SAD may vary in severity but usually recur regularly each winter. They include:
Sleep problems: Usually desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake but, in some cases, disturbed sleep and early morning wakening
Lethargy: Fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine
Overeating: Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, usually resulting in weight gain
Depression: Feelings of misery, guilt and loss of self-esteem, sometimes hopelessness and despair, sometimes apathy and loss of feelings
Social problems: Irritability and desire to avoid social contact
Anxiety: Tension and inability to tolerate stress
Loss of libido: Decreased interest in sex and physical contact
Mood changes: In some sufferers, extremes of mood and short periods of hypomania (over activity) in spring and autumn.
For a more information, check out the website for the Mental Health America.
What can a supervisor do?
As a supervisor or HR Manager, you cannot diagnose depression. You can, however, note changes in work performance and listen to employee concerns. Contact your EAP and ask for suggestions on how best to approach an employee who you suspect is experiencing work problems that may be related to depression.
When a previously productive employee begins to be absent or tardy frequently, or is unusually forgetful and error-prone, he/she may be experiencing a significant health problem. Discuss changes in work performance with the employee. You may suggest that the employee seek consultation if there are personal concerns. Confidentiality of any discussion with the employee is critical. If an employee voluntarily talks with you about health problems, including feeling depressed or down all the time, keep these points in mind:
- Do not try to diagnose the problem yourself.
- Recommend that any employee experiencing symptoms of depression seek professional consultation from an EAP counselor or other health or mental health professional.
- Recognize that a depressed employee may need a flexible work schedule during treatment.
- Find out about your company’s policy by contacting your human resources specialist.
- Remember that severe depression may be life threatening to the employee, but rarely to others. If an employee makes comments like “life is not worth living” or “people would be better off without me,” take the threats seriously. Immediately call for local emergency assistance.
Treatment for SAD is varied and quite effective.