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8 ways to beat the winter blues at work

Is SAD the same as the winter blues, and how does it affect people at work?

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What causes the winter blues?What is SAD and what are the signs?Supporting an employee with the winter bluesTreatment for the winter blues

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  • The winter blues is the feeling of low mood when the weather turns colder and darker — for some people, it's a temporary mood change, while for other it can turn into Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects 3% of people in the UK during winter.
  • The winter blues are influenced by lower levels of the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin and disruptions to our body clock caused by melatonin (a sleep hormone) and the dark winter mornings.
  • The main different between the winter blues and SAD has to do with severity and function: people who experience SAD severely struggle with their mental health and find it harder to get things done.
  • An employee who experiences SAD may find that their productivity and enthusiasm significantly drops over winter; other signs to look out for include increased absenteeism, lack of energy, social withdrawal, and irritability or pessimism.
  • Support employees struggling with SAD — or the winter blues — by maximising the light in your workplace, set up a SAD lamp, allow some extra flexibility, and encourage time outdoors.

What does it mean to have the winter blues? 

Lots of us are affected by low mood when the weather turns colder and darker. This milder experience is known not-all-that-affectionately as the winter blues. According to a study into workplace productivity by Peldon Rose, 44% of employees say that winter negatively affects their wellbeing, 51% say it affects their mood, and 30% their productivity. 

For many people this mood change is temporary and easily managed with small lifestyle changes, but for others the winter blues can turn into something more severe. This is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s experienced by around 3% of people in the UK seasonally, and usually over winter.

So how can you recognise symptoms of the winter blues in the workplace, and better support any employees who struggle seasonally with their mental health and feel less motivated or creative as the days get shorter?

What causes the winter blues?

Evolutionary biology might be able to explain why our energy levels naturally take a dive when it’s cold and dark outside. Ancient humans would have found it harder to find food, mate and migrate over winter, so the individuals who conserved their energy while it was tough would have been more successful at taking advantage of all those juicy opportunities over summer. 

Our brain chemistry has a big role to play in the winter blues. Serotonin is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that boosts our mood and makes us feel less anxious and more focused. We turnover less serotonin when we conserve our energy by staying cosy indoors, and we’re exposed to less serotonin-boosting sunshine over short winter days, too.

A graph showing that serotonin turnover in our brains is significantly lower during the winter months.
Our brains have significantly lower serotonin turnover during the winter months. Source: The Lancet 2002

Our circadian rhythm (body clock) adapts our behaviours and biochemistry to the time of day. Higher levels of melatonin (a sleep hormone controlled by your body clock) make us feel sleepier and more lethargic as it gets darker earlier in the evening, making hibernation feel preferable to that big night out with friends.

Dark winter mornings can also disrupt our circadian rhythm, which is calibrated by the position of the sun, and detected by photoreceptors at the back of our eyes. Our body might prefer us to wake up at 9am, but we’re still setting alarms for 6. This has an impact on our quality of sleep and our mood overall.

Lots of people feel more sluggish as the seasons change, but unlike the winter blues, Seasonal Affective Disorder seriously diminishes someone’s ability to enjoy life. 

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Watch Spill's webinar recording on 'How to beat the winter blues' (or share the link with your team)

This webinar looks at the social and biological causes of low mood, the reasons why it’s more common during winter months, and how we can avoid sinking into a seasonal slump.

Winter blues vs Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD is a type of clinical depression which comes and goes with the season, and it can be debilitating for anyone who experiences it. Interestingly, SAD is around three times more common in women than in men. 

The main difference between the winter blues and SAD has to do with severity and function. More than feeling vaguely flat, lethargic or less creative like someone with the winter blues, people who experience SAD are severely struggling with their mental health and find it harder to get things done – even things they would look forward to at other times of year.

Common symptoms of SAD are:

  • Persistent low mood and fatigue
  • Loss of interest in daily activities or hobbies   
  • Feelings of despair, guilt, hopelessness and worthlessness
  • Craving carbohydrates, leading to weight gain

Someone with SAD may feel like they simply don’t have the energy to leave the house, or even their bed, which compounds feelings of isolation and loneliness over the winter months. These painful symptoms will lift as the season starts to shift. 

Someone who otherwise experiences clinical depression or bipolar disorder may also find that their symptoms worsen in winter. Like any kind of depression, diagnosis of SAD usually depends on the length and severity of someone’s symptoms. The Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire is a self-administered test that can work out your risk levels for SAD. Otherwise, a trip to the GP is a good first port of call. 

Recognising the symptoms of SAD at work

An employee who experiences SAD may find that their productivity – as well as their passion for the role – drops significantly over winter. 

Signs an employee may be suffering from the winter blues include:

  • Increased absenteeism or uncharacteristic lateness
  • Lack of energy and motivation
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Irritability or pessimism
  • Social withdrawal

Colleagues might notice that someone with a usually sunny disposition is suddenly pessimistic and hard to approach. They may find it harder to turn up on time, finish tasks to their usual standard or make business plans for the future.

Spill regularly asks how your team is feeling, so you never have to worry about an employee slipping through the cracks again.

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8 ways to support an employee with the winter blues at work

If a colleague discloses to you that they’re experiencing SAD, there are a few adjustments you can make to help them feel more productive and comfortable at work over winter. As always, it’s worth asking openly what might help them most, as well as pointing them towards any support resources and policies that your company has in place. Some of these low-cost ideas may also help the other 30% of us who experience the winter blues, toos.

1. Maximise the light in your workplace 🌤

Moving filing cabinets and furniture away from windows, opening the blinds or ditching room partitions is a cost-effective way to give everyone access to a bit more natural sunlight. Even cleaning the windows more often can make a surprising difference.

2. Set up a SAD lamp 🛋

Light therapy is a widely-recognised treatment for SAD, and just 30 minutes of exposure a day can have a positive impact in a matter of weeks. Luckily, light boxes (sometimes called SAD lamps) are super practical to use whether you work at home or in a shared space. They can be propped up next to a screen or worn as a fancy visor if you have an active job. Some of them are designed to look like a standard desk lamp, so you don’t even have to compromise your decor to feel better. 

3. Allow some extra flexibility 🧘

An employee with SAD might need to take time during the day to attend therapy, take more frequent breaks to manage stress, or sleep off the side effects of medication. It might also benefit them to start their commute a bit later in the morning, either because they’re sleeping poorly, or because starting their workday in the dark feels impossible. 

4. Be sensitive when you describe the weather 🌧

It’s not unusual to describe early evenings or rainy, grey days as ‘depressing,’ but this can trivialise a very real mental health problem. 

5. Plan ahead, while they’re feeling well 🗓

If there’s a big project that your employee is responsible for but the deadline isn’t until the end of the year, see whether you can move some of the work forward so it doesn’t add stress at an already difficult time. 

6. Encourage time outdoors 🌳

Take advantage of daylight hours with walking meetings, and encourage everyone to get outside during their lunch breaks. You can normalise breaks by setting an emoji status on any work platforms (like Slack or Microsoft Teams) while you’re away from your desk, and getting others to do the same. If you’re a manager, block out 30 minutes in your reports’ diaries for them to go out on a walk at some point during the day. We do this once a month at Spill: we call it ‘Let them go walking’.  

7. Invest in an office fruit bowl 🍎

Eating a healthy balanced diet is important for regulating our mood and boosting our energy levels, so refreshing the fruit bowl could be an easy way to dish out some important vitamins and help people feel more focused and less sleepy.  

8. Make sure social events are open to all 🍻

People with SAD can feel increasingly isolated over winter, and they might not feel capable of turning up to social events in person. Try not to force social occasions but keep them accessible to everybody. Making sure there are digital ways to join in or catch up with important company news can help your colleague to feel more connected to the rest of their team. 

Treatments for the winter blues

SAD is treated in the same way as other types of clinical depression – with the exception of light boxes, which are a seasonal depressive special. Treatment usually involves a combination of medication (antidepressants) and counselling. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be particularly helpful for SAD, because it teaches people to proactively cope with winter by identifying negative thoughts and adapting their patterns of behaviour. 

Naturally, it’s up to your employee whether to seek treatment for any kind of depression they might experience. But nurturing an open culture around mental health means that they’re more likely to let you know when they’re struggling. And that means you’re already one step closer to helping them feel better at work.

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Watch Spill's webinar recording on 'How to beat the winter blues' (or share the link with your team)

This webinar looks at the social and biological causes of low mood, the reasons why it’s more common during winter months, and how we can avoid sinking into a seasonal slump.

Spill therapy has been shown to reduce employee symptoms of low mood by 74%. See how much it would cost to support your team's mental health.

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