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November 9, 2022

Beating the Winter Blues: How to Manage Stress and SAD at Work

Chris Harley

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The often griped-about "winter blues" may not sound like something to worry about, but as the days get colder and shorter, Seasonal Affective Disorder could be infiltrating your workplace without you knowing!

Winter depression can arise from seasonal changes in sunlight exposure and temperature. Combine this with the ongoing cost of living crisis, and it's never been more important for managers to recognize and combat stress within their teams.

Managing the Winter Blues

Low mood or depression can affect anyone, so it's vital that managers take support themselves, as well as supporting their team members. With the added pressures of protecting their team's wellbeing, managers can often overlook their own mental health and even harbor feelings of guilt when taking time off to look after themselves.

To mark International Stress Awareness Week, we're taking a closer look at how winter can affect team wellbeing, and what managers can do to manage workplace stress in the colder months.

SAD in the Workplace

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), sometimes called "the winter blues" or "winter depression," affects sufferers in a particular seasonal pattern. Usually, though not always, the symptoms will be most severe from September to April and will drop off during the spring and summer.

Though it's not unusual to occasionally feel down or unmotivated as the weather takes a turn for the worse, SAD is a serious mental condition with symptoms that can be adjacent to clinical depression.

Some of the common signs of SAD that you should be aware of include:

  • Frequent, sometimes poorly-explained absences in the winter.
  • Difficulty concentrating in meetings or on projects.
  • A general lack of energy in work and conversations.
  • Sudden changes in diet (for example, comfort eating).
  • A palpably bad mood that seems to have come on with the winter.

Other Factors That Lead to Stress in the Winter

While seasonal affective disorder can be a major cause of stress in and of itself, it's important that managers stay conscious of other, more pervasive sources of stress that can manifest in the workplace.

This International Stress Awareness Week, one of the most talked-about sources of stress has been the ongoing cost of living crisis. And with temperatures dropping as energy prices continue to soar, it's no wonder so many people are on edge.

In fact, surveys from June of this year reported by The Guardian showed that "77 percent of people over the age of 16 [in the UK] reported feeling 'very or somewhat worried about the rising cost of living'." Further reports showed that "67 percent of Americans express great concern about the cost of living increasing."

Another cause of stress in the winter is the run-up to the holidays. The pressure of organizing family celebrations, travel arrangements, and the sheer financial strain of having to afford it all, can prove too much for many people.

For those already prone to suffering from seasonal affective disorder, these added sources of stress can make the season even more difficult. Managers should be mindful of these issues in order to give their team members the support they need throughout the winter.

Beating SAD and Winter Blues in Your Team

If you’re worried about how SAD and other winter-related stressors could be affecting your team, here are a few of our favorite tips for supporting your staff through the colder months.

Give Them Opportunities to Soak Up the Sun

Though SAD still isn’t very well understood, many medical experts believe that its causes are rooted in the fact that people don't get as much exposure to sunlight during the winter. 

As the days get shorter, it's important to create time in the day for your staff to step outside and enjoy some much-needed sunshine. For example, block out meeting-free zones in everyone's calendars to ensure that they can step away from their desks and take a break.

If busy schedules make this unfeasible, then your team may benefit from flexible working. With more autonomy over when and where they work, team members will not only be able to make the most of the limited winter daylight, but according to a 2021 study by Gartner, it could also make them more productive at work. 

Educate Yourself and Your Staff

Unfortunately, it's common for mental health issues to fly under the radar. That's why education is one of the best ways to combat wintertime stress.

Don't worry: no one's expecting you to re-train as a psychiatrist. But take the time to learn about stress in the workplace, its causes, and how management can help to mitigate it. This way you can keep on top of problems as they arise, making your workplace a less stressful place for everyone.

Encouraging your staff to do the same can also help them to look for the warning signs in themselves and others, and feel more comfortable talking to you about the problems they're facing.

Improve Employees’ Working Environment

Not everyone is comfortable talking about the winter blues, or even any aspect of their mental wellbeing at work. But that shouldn't stop you from taking active steps to combat seasonal blues.

If your team's working environment is dark, cramped or cluttered, then it could be exacerbating SAD symptoms without you even realizing! Consider how you can make your workspace a more pleasant place to be. Simple steps like rearranging furniture, clearing out built-up clutter, and removing partitions, can go a long way to improving everyone's mood at work.

If you’re sure that SAD is a problem in your team, there are even daylight-simulating SAD lights now sold by many major retailers. We spoke to Charlie Swift, Managing Editor at Mind Tools, about his own experience of winter lethargy: "I find getting up in the dark difficult and the blinding glare of putting on the light distressing (no overstatement). So I use a sunrise lamp that gradually comes on while I'm asleep. It peaks with my alarm and stays on for another 10 mins. Somehow, I'm already adjusted to it by the time I wake up and it's not a brutal jolt. And I feel ready to get up rather than desperate to bury myself back under the duvet."

Just like ergonomic chairs and new monitors, these pieces of equipment can have a real, positive impact on people's mood and productivity through the winter.

Final Thoughts

Stress at work can often go undetected, but with a proactive approach, managers can spot the early signs of winter blues and learn how to tackle stress in their teams. 

During this year’s International Stress Awareness Week, we hope this guide to seasonal stress has helped you as you work to lead a happier, healthier, and more productive team!

About the Author:

Chris is a passionate mental health and wellbeing writer and psychologist, focusing on sharing his experience and improving the lives of others. When Chris isn't researching the latest holistic and wellbeing therapies, he's spending time with his two cats, usually curled up on the sofa reading a book.

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