As the nights draw in and the temperatures drop, many of us feel a bit down with the winter blues, but for some people in the UK this develops into a mental health condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a type of depression which causes individuals to have low mood, be irritable, lack energy and crave fattening foods. They may be sleepy during the day and have trouble getting up in the mornings with feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness.
Symptoms typically start in the autumn, are at their worst in the winter months and improve or disappear in the spring. The cause is thought to be due to a disruption of the body clock and an imbalance of the hormones that are affected by sunlight and influence mood and sleepiness.
Apart from conventional treatments for depression, SAD can be greatly improved by spending time in daylight during the early part of the day, or using a light box to create artificial daylight indoors. Exercise, a good balanced diet and a reduction in stress can also help. People who work indoors often travel to and from work in the dark and rarely see daylight all day during the winter months.
Practical measures that can be taken at work to treat SAD include encouraging employees to take a good break at lunchtime with a walk in the fresh air and a healthy meal and avoiding holding or continuing meetings over the lunch break. If employers notice that someone seems to have low mood, [they should] ask them how they are and give them an opportunity to talk if they want to. Employers can also work with individuals to make adjustments, if necessary, to working hours, to manage stress, to move to sit near a window or continue light therapy at work.
At Royal Mail, the majority of our employees work outdoors during daylight hours or work a shift that starts or ends in daylight. Our winter wellbeing promotion Beating the Blues will raise awareness of SAD. We also provide a comprehensive package of mental health support including mental health awareness training for managers, stress risk assessments and an employee assistance programme (EAP), Feeling First Class.
Dr Shaun Davis is global director of safety, health, wellbeing and sustainability at Royal Mail Group