Winter is part of the culture in Minnesota. Complaining — and joking — about the cold weather, snow and windchill factors are second nature.
But for some people, the darker days of winter bring the distinct onset of gloom. You might feel more anxiety, mood changes and lethargy. Once known as the “winter blues,” what we now call seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recognized mental health issue.
Depressed employees are less engaged and productive at work. What can employers do to support staff?
“Employers should be aware that, for example, as daylight hours shorten, an employee accustomed to leaving work while the sun is still shining may miss out on serotonin while, simultaneously, their brain increases melatonin, throwing off their circadian rhythm and sleep cycles,” said Katie Lee, a spokeswoman for Mental Health America.
Shorter days are not the only factor.
“SAD may be exacerbated by the end-of-year holidays as stress levels rise, worries about finances increase and social situations cause anxiety,” Lee said.
Statistics from Virginia-based Mental Health America show that approximately 5% of people in the U.S. experience seasonal depression. The nonprofit says that 4 out of 5 people who experience seasonal depression are women.
An overview from the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that SAD symptoms start in late fall and early winter and begin to improve in spring. NIMH noted that additional symptoms can include oversleeping, overeating, weight gain and social withdrawal. The latter could be considered a human version of “hibernating” for the season.
The best SAD remedy is to get outside for 30 minutes a day, no matter how cold it might be, said Jean Larson, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.
“It’s just about getting outside and letting that natural light into your system,” Larson said. “And letting sunshine into your interior space.”
Furniture retailer Room & Board has a fitness center with wellness rooms on its Golden Valley campus. One of those has a seasonal light-therapy lamp, a tool that many have found to be helpful when dealing with SAD.
Statistics from Mental Health America show that bright-light therapy can be effective for up to 85% of SAD sufferers.
“We’ve had it for many, many years. It does get used quite often,” said Nancy Greatrix Manley, Room & Board’s chief people officer.
Some staffers have therapy lights at their desks. Employees can also be reimbursed for buying a therapy lamp through the benefits program.
Room & Board has natural light throughout its spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights. Offices overlook an outdoor courtyard.
“There’s just light everywhere. This is an awful time of year, I think, if you’re in an office building without windows,” Manley said. “There may be people who struggle year-round with depression but it’s worse in the winter months because of the light deprivation.”
Manley said that the company strives to create an overall “emotionally healthy place to work” with a holistic emphasis on well-being, mindfulness and mental health.
Room & Board offers a hybrid work schedule where staff can be in the office two or three days a week. Manley said that connecting with other people is good for everyone’s health.
Brain wellness is at the core of the mission for the Minneapolis-based American Academy of Neurology, a medical membership organization.
“When we built our building in the Minneapolis Mill District in 2013, it was designed with plenty of windows so staff would have workspaces filled with natural light. The AAN has programs for staff that include webinars and materials specific to SAD, as well as access to online professional therapy,” said Mary Post, chief executive of AAN.
AAN plans to introduce light boxes to its wellness room in 2023, she said.
Staff surveys have shown that flexibility is the top request from employees, Post said. AAN’s current hybrid schedule calls for working in the office two days per week, with three remote days.
Post said that the surveys focus on finding ways to “reduce stress, improve mental health and cultivate a work-life balance.”
People living in northern latitudes like Minnesota are more susceptible to SAD, said Larson.
“Our days are shorter,” Larson said. “When our days are shorter we have lower levels of serotonin.”
The university offers its own resources for employees and students who are wrestling with seasonal depression.
The libraries at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota offer light-therapy lamps than can be checked out by staff and students. Each library also has two study carrels with SAD lamps that can be reserved.
“Through our health benefits, the cost of light-therapy lamps can be covered by a flexible spending account,” said Mary Rohman Kuhl, senior director of Total Rewards, the university’s benefits and wellness program.
Kuhl said that the school’s employee-assistance program (EAP) is another resource.
“Employees can also use our EAP provider’s free coaching services to create an action plan for maintaining their daily routine, which can help combat SAD symptoms as well,” she said.
SAD sufferers — and Minnesotans in general — might be relieved to know that we have turned a key seasonal corner. The winter solstice last Wednesday marked the shortest day of the year. Daylight will increase from now until June.
Daylight saving time returns on March 12.