AS WINTER APPROACHES, the clocks have gone back, evenings are getting longer and exposure to natural light diminishes.
For many workers, their daily commute is conducted in darkness and the everyday things that can be so important for our mental health and well-being, like exercise and meeting friends, can seem much harder to fit in.
There can be a tangible impact on mental health and well-being associated with this time of year.
People may be familiar with ‘seasonal affective disorder’, or SAD, which is a pattern associated with mood disorders such as major depressive or bipolar disorder.
SAD actually affects relatively few people, but the changes associated with this time of year can affect our mood and our sense of overall well-being.
In the workplace, seasonal mood changes can result in greater levels of absenteeism and reduced productivity levels during the long, dark winter months. Staff morale can dip, directly impacting the wider working environment.
For employers, changes may be subtle, and they might feel it is not their place to get involved if a member of staff appears to be struggling.
But it is often in the best interest of both the employer and employee that emotional well-being issues are addressed proactively to reduce any negative outcomes and help ensure employees feel supported in the workplace.
Given the number of hours spent at work, it’s best to incorporate policies that support both emotional and physical well-being because they make these issues much easier to discuss openly.
Here is some practical advice to employers on dealing with mood difficulties brought on by the change of season:
One of the easiest steps an employer can take is to ensure all blinds are open and lights are on before staff arrive to work so that they are immediately entering a light-filled space.
In addition to creating light-filled spaces, organisations should encourage employees to get as much natural light and fresh air during the day as possible.
Small but important steps such as facilitating regular breaks or organising a company-wide walk at lunchtime can be hugely beneficial.
Rearranging office furniture so that desks are placed near windows is also helpful.
Flexible working hours can be positive for a business and its employees. Allowing staff to gain more daylight either before or after their working hours can help counter the effects of the change in season – or might simply enable them to get out for a run or walk more easily.
Many of us have a tendency to eat more during the dark, winter months, and appetite changes and changes in body weight can be associated with mood difficulties.
Providing healthier options in the staff canteen or reception, such as free fruit or herbal teas, coupled with a workshop or webinar on healthy eating for winter, are great ways to support staff and help them make better choices.
To help promote general emotional well-being, it’s important to keep an open line of communication year-round – more and more employers are recognising their responsibility in this regard.
Mindfulness programmes and access to support helplines via an employee assist programme are offered by many companies in Ireland nowadays.
Last year alone, the Spectrum Wellness employee assist programme team handled 4,000 calls to its 24-hour helpline from people going through mental well-being difficulties.
Mood changes are not unusual and people shouldn’t be overly concerned if they notice a dip in energy levels or a change in appetite.
However, when such changes negatively impact our physical or mental well-being, they cannot be ignored, particularly at work, where we spend so much of our day.
If someone feels overwhelmed by changes in their mood, or they experience difficulties coping day-to-day, engaging with professional support may be helpful. If that can be accessed through the workplace, it’s a great place to start.
Sarah O’Neill is a psychologist and director of mental health at Spectrum Wellness.