By Grace Wong
This time of year, that blaring alarm clock might bother you a little more. It’s cold and dark outside, and your commute feels longer than usual too.
When you finally get to work, you might find yourself more annoyed than usual by a co-worker chewing an apple too loudly, and you slump in your seat with a sigh.
Many workers experience the “winter blues,” but it’s not the same thing as seasonal affective disorder, which is a form of depression the American Psychological Association classifies as a serious medical condition related to changes in the seasons, and shortage of sunlight.
“This is a real diagnosis, and it’s recognized by psychiatrists in many countries,” said Norman Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Rosenthal gave the disorder its name.
According to the APA, symptoms of SAD include fatigue, pervasively sad mood, loss of interest, sleep difficulty or excessive sleeping, craving and eating more starches and sweets, weight gain, feelings of hopelessness or despair, and thoughts of suicide.
In 2008, Rosenthal wrote in a journal article on seasonal affective disorder that 6 percent of the U.S. population is affected.
The Society of Human Resource Management says those symptoms could individually or collectively affect employee productivity by reducing morale and increasing absenteeism, mistakes, and safety risks in environments like manufacturing or construction.
“You may not see anything on the surface, but people who are unevenly productive across the year, it’s in the interest of management to give them the light they need to be as productive as they can be. It’s not in their interest to deny it,” Rosenthal said.
Leslie Friedman, originally from Georgia, moved to New York in 2012 and found an unfamiliar version of herself during the long winters. Her work as a designer had taken a nose dive, she couldn’t sleep and she cried uncontrollably.
She did some research and realized she had SAD. She used a sun lamp and forced herself out of bed.
“I noticed that faking that niceness around people makes you a little bit happier,” she said. She also took a job managing a pet store because it forced her to socialize.
She was officially diagnosed in the fall of 2013, and her doctor prescribed a low dosage of Prozac.
Her co-workers couldn’t tell that she suffered from SAD, said Friedman, 28, who has since moved to Iowa. “It allowed me to act like a normal person again.”
SAD has been the subject of a workplace legal controversy concerning access to light.
In 2010, Renae Ekstrand, a former teacher at the Somerset school district in Wisconsin, won a case against her former employer for failing to address her needs as someone with SAD, which is recognized under disability law.
Ekstrand joined the Somerset district in 2000 after teaching for 10 years and was assigned to a room with no windows in 2005.
After her request to change to an available classroom with an exterior window to accommodate her SAD was denied by the district, Ekstrand began having symptoms like fatigue, trouble organizing tasks and anxiety. She went on medical leave that October. Eventually, she moved on to teach at South Dakota State University in 2006 and filed the lawsuit against the Somerset district in 2008.
Employers have recently been more forthcoming about how they accommodate workers with SAD, said Linda Batiste, principal consultant at the Job Accommodation Network, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
She said it’s easier if the employee writes a letter with documentation from their doctor so the employer can understand the situation and figure out if the employee is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It does look like employers are saying, ‘Let’s just go ahead and provide them with what they need,'” Batiste said. “It’s a lot easier than arguing in court, especially for something like a light box.”
Psychologist Zachary Friedman (no relation to Leslie Friedman) said treatment is often a multipronged approach, and new research has indicated that overall wellness is important for those with SAD, particularly good sleep hygiene: going to bed and waking up at the same times, getting enough hours of consistent sleep and cutting out electronics half an hour before bed.
“The only things you should be doing in your bed is sleep and sex,” Friedman said. “If you haven’t slept a lot, it’s really hard on the body and the brain as well.”
SAD can also be treated with antidepressant medication.
Rosenthal stressed the importance of light therapy, whether through sitting near a window at work, trimming shrubbery that is blocking light at home, or getting a light box on your desk.
“Light therapy still works … and one thing that is new is that there is even more research that it doesn’t have to be seasonal for us to benefit from it,” he said.
Research has also shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can not only treat SAD but prevent it.
“If you’ve given people cognitive behavioral therapy, in future winters they’re less likely to get the problem,” Rosenthal said.
Cognitive behavioral therapy begins with educating the person about their illness. Patients should then begin telling themselves they can “turn it around,” he said. That’s followed by continued and active steps to do the opposite of actions that caused their symptoms.
“If you don’t want to see your friends, you get dressed and see your friends,” Rosenthal said. “You get the sunlight, the exercise, the social support and a pleasant environment, which are all beneficial.”
Friedman said cognitive behavioral therapy can extend into the workplace by employees being mindful of their needs and employers encouraging those with SAD to go for a walk outside to get more light or call a family member or friend during lunch breaks to decrease isolation.
“Take time throughout the day, whether it’s a few seconds or a few minutes, to check in with yourself,” Friedman said.