It’s that time of year when we turn back the clocks and seemingly turn off the lights. And while Dec. 21 – the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year – is not too far off, it will be mid-March before we get back to an even split of daylight and darkness.

For some, the lack of daylight leads to Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. This year, the shorter, darker days come at a time when many are already struggling with the challenges of life during a pandemic. A June survey published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge in mental health issues across the country, with at least 40% of Americans reporting that they are struggling with mental health or substance use.

In an Aug. 21 article published by the Cleveland Clinic, psychologist Scott Bea says the upcoming months might be even tougher for those who have been experiencing SAD year after year, which he attributes to spending less time outdoors or not having as many occasions to get out of the house.

“People are already experiencing low-grade depression – we’re already feeling some helplessness, hopelessness, irritability, confinement and soon, the winter months will be added to all of it,” he says in the article. “With shorter daylight hours and limited exposure to daylight, those who experience seasonal affective disorder are going to really be challenged.”

SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than men, and it is far more prevalent in people who live far north or south of the equator, according to the National Institute of Mental Health’s Information Resource Center. Just 1% of those who live in Florida suffer with SAD, but the number increases to 9% of those who live in New England or Alaska.

Other risk factors for SAD include having depression or bipolar disorder, or a family history of SAD or other types of depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is a type of depression displaying a recurring seasonal pattern, not a separate disorder.

Symptoms include a lack of energy, excessive daytime sleepiness, overeating, weight gain, craving carbohydrates, and social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”), according to the Johns Hopkins Health System.

Staff members experiencing the symptoms of SAD or other mental health issues related to dealing with the pandemic may be more irritable, lack motivation, be unable to concentrate, and be less productive.

Easing the symptoms
The good news is that there are several ways to help ease the symptoms of SAD:
• Get more sunlight. Spending time outside or near a window can help.
• Try light therapy. With a 10,000-lux light box, light therapy typically involves daily sessions of about 20 to 30 minutes, according to the Mayo Clinic. For most people, light therapy is most effective when it’s done early in the morning, right after waking up. Check with your doctor for what might work best for you.
• Get regular exercise. If the weather permits, try to head outdoors during mid-day.
• Eat healthy, well-balanced meals, particularly those rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes and favoring plant fats over animal fats.
• Refrain from using alcohol and other drugs, which can worsen depression.
• Take Vitamin D. Ask a registered dietitian or your doctor about the appropriate dose.
• Try mindfulness practice. There are many books, apps, and YouTube videos to help you get started, such as “Wherever You Go, There You Are” and “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat Zinn, “Peace Is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh and “10% Happier” by Dan Harris.
• Maintain social connections. Even with social distancing you can remain connected with family and friends through video chats, telephone calls, and socially distanced outdoor visits.
• Get help. If you think you may be depressed, reach out to your employee assistance program or see a health care provider as soon as possible. He or she may prescribe antidepressants or therapy.
Once you start working on your symptoms, expect your mood to get better slowly, not right away. Feeling better takes time.

Employers can also help by taking the following actions:
• Raise awareness among employees about the symptoms of SAD.
• Encourage employees to get outside mid-day for some sunshine and exercise.
• Allow employees who have come back to the office to use their special light boxes if their doctor prescribes it.
• Remind employees of current well-being offerings.
• Encourage staff to take breaks and unplug.
• Promote work-life balance.

(For more, see “9 Ways to Help Alleviate Seasonal Affective Disorder in the Workplace,” published by OneDigital.)

Written by Jayne Schmitz, MPH, MIIA Wellness Project Manager.