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Support employees with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Winter takes a toll on mental health.

This article was last updated on Feb. 17, 2023.

In pictures and paintings, winter is immortalized as a wonderland of ice- and snow-related activities, or a snowy landscape of serene beauty. But for people who live through the cold of winter, year after year, the novelty tends to wear off quickly. There’s no doubt about it: Winter just feels different. The long nights and cold temperatures make most of us feel less energetic.

Employees are more likely to call in sick, find it more difficult to concentrate or unable to perform at their best levels. 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?

Experts estimate five percent of Americans, primarily in northern climates where the daylight hours are shorter, suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) External Site in any given year. People with SAD report feelings of depression only during the winter months. Symptoms of SAD could include:

  • Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Sluggishness
  • 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.

Bright light may be the key to treating SAD symptoms

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 serotonin and melatonin External Site levels.

Health savings account (HSA) dollars may cover light therapy.

Did you know? Many light therapy lamps are HSA-eligible External Site, meaning your employees can cover the costs of a light therapy lamp through pre-tax HSA dollars. Download the "What is an HSA?" intranet article template and share it with your employees to help them understand the benefits. Simply log in and search M-20577 to find it.

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.

Alternative sources of light that can help manage seasonal depression

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. Most Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield members have virtual visits through Doctor On Demand External Site, giving them 24/7 access to doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and other medical experts. Virtual visits are especially helpful for employees who have tight schedules, are juggling kids' schedules, or live in areas where mental health 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 and other behavioral health conditions, health care costs are expected to rise and productivity to decrease — all impacting your bottom line.

Find the resources that matter to you and your employees

The rise of behavioral health conditions affecting your workforce is a top priority for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA). Get ahead of it by learning more about how to support your employee population. 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.

Share the resources with your employees

Share vital information about SAD with your employees and find many other resources to support mental health in the workplace in the Emotional Health tag on Blue@Work.

Questions? Contact your authorized Wellmark account representative or email us at Send Email.