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COVID winter could take a toll on mental health

Support employees with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

This year, winter delivers a double whammy. In addition to cold temperatures, COVID-19 cases are surging across the country. Outbreaks are likely to get worse as the virus is more easily spread indoors. In the meantime, remote employees may feel homebound and isolated Opens in a new window after months of social distancing. This may leave them feeling unmotivated, unproductive and lethargic.

The good news is a vaccine is on the way. In the meantime, however, experts have warned us to be prepared for a difficult winter. They are also concerned about the mental health consequences. Only a few months ago, U.S. adults reported depressive symptoms External Site three times higher than pre-pandemic, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Even earlier in the pandemic, a survey External Site conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported similar results.

The lack of connection with the outside world may feel especially difficult for employees who are working from home. Some may suffer from seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), during the cold, short days of the winter months.

What is seasonal depression?

Pre-pandemic, experts estimated six percentof Americans, primarily in northern climates, suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) External Site. People with SAD report feelings of depression only during the winter months. This could include loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, sluggishness, and in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide or death. With SAD, the short days and long nights of winter may also bring feelings of fatigue, cravings for certain foods, headaches and sleep problems.

Researchers aren’t clear exactly what causes SAD, but many factors may play a role, including genes and stress. What makes SAD unique is the link to sunlight. Researchers believe the reduced number of daylight hours during the winter months interrupts the body’s circadian rhythms, which help regulate the body’s internal clock, and let us know when it’s time to sleep and time to wake.

Yet other research has shown that people who are depressed have decreased levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that seems to be triggered by sunlight. The lack of serotonin may cause winter depression. The change in season can also disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

The most difficult months for SAD External Site sufferers are January and February, and younger people and women are at higher risk. This year, feelings of SAD may be intensified by surges in the pandemic.

A light on the horizon

The good news is seasonal depression is highly treatable with the use of light therapy External Site. With this treatment, a sun lamp mimics the light intensity from the outdoors. This simple, effective therapy helps the body regulate seratonin and melatonin External Site levels.

Most experts recommend sitting in front of the lamp within the first hour of waking up each day, for about 20 to 30 minutes. If it isn’t boosting mood and energy, they may recommend longer periods.

A prescription is not necessary for a sun lamp, and they are available at many retail stores and online, with a variety of price points. Health insurance plans do not cover the cost, and sun lamps are not approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Employees who are considering bright-light therapy should talk to their doctor or therapist for a recommendation. Conditions like bipolar disorder or eye problems such as glaucoma or cataracts may cause problems, so it’s important to talk to a professional who can recommend a specific sun lamp.

If symptoms are mild, there are other simple things you can encourage your employee to try at home to treat seasonal depression, including:

  • Increase the amount of light in the home. Pull back the curtains, open the blinds, remove the screens and wash the windows.
  • Get outdoors. Opens in a new window Sure, it’s cold, but bundling up and walking outdoors on sunny winter days can do wonders for the mood.
  • Suggest a dawn stimulator. Instead of an alarm clock, a dawn stimulator uses lights that gradually brighten in intensity like the sun.
  • Self-care. Opens in a new window Motivate employees to exercise regularly, eat healthy and maintain a regular sleep schedule.
  • Stay connected. Encourage employees stay socially active via phone calls, Zoom calls, and other remote ways to connect.
  • Encourage virtual visits. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield saw a 3,000 percent increase Opens in a new window in virtual visits for behavioral health related use during the start of the pandemic in March. It's especially helpful for employees who have tight schedules, are juggling kids' virtual learning and their 9-to-5, or live in areas where care isn't widely accessible.

The millennial employee population is expected to make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. With this generation being plagued by depression, anxiety Opens in a new window, and other behavioral health conditions, health care costs are expected to rise and productivity to decrease — all impacting your bottom line.

Find a variety of resources that matter to you and your employees

The rise of behavioral health conditions affecting your workforce is a top priority of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA). Get ahead of it by learning more. Download our free e-book Opens in a new window for instant access to extensive research, in-house data and subject matter experts to create sustainable, long-term changes in your workplace today.

Get ahead of it by learning more

You can also share vital information about SAD with your employees. You'll find many other resources to support mental health in the workplace at blueatwork@wellmark.com Send Email.

Questions? Contact your authorized Wellmark account representative, or email us at blueatwork@wellmark.com Send Email.