The Winter Blues

With the change of seasons, you may notice yourself feeling hopeless, gaining weight, socially withdrawing, and feeling lethargic. Driving too and from work in the dark and possibly only getting around 50 days of sunshine throughout the months of December, January, and February (Mayo Clinic, 2017).

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (2016), seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that involves the onset of depressive symptoms starting in the fall and continuing throughout the winter months. You may be at risk for SAD if you are a female, live farther north or south of the equator, have a family history of SAD, already have diagnosed depression, and are a young adult.

Although SAD is recognized as a syndrome, it is not seen as its own diagnosis entity through the ICD-10 and DSM-5. It is instead seen as a subtype within major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder (Cotterell, 2010).

Seasonal affective disorder symptoms include hypersomnia, psychomotor slowing, hyperphagia (excessive hunger), and weight gain, all which fall into the neurovegetative symptoms of depression. SAD also shares symptoms of other affective disorders including low mood, loss of interest, social self-isolation, and low motivation (Cotterell, 2010).


According to the Mayo Clinic, the specific causes of SAD are unknown. A few theories relate to one’s biological clock or circadian rhythm. Melatonin, the sleep hormone, increases in production at increased levels of darkness. With shorter and darker days throughout the winter months, the production of this hormone increases causing one to feel sleepy and lethargic (Melrose, 2015). People with seasonal affective disorder also have trouble regulating the neurotransmitter serotonin which is responsible for balancing mood (Melrose, 2015). The combination of decreased serotonin and increased melatonin affect the body’s internal 24-hour “clock” leading to feelings of depression (Mayo Clinic, 2017).


In a workplace that involves innovation, employee engagement and work productivity the last thing employees need is the onset of the winter blues. As an employer and employee, there are simple solutions to combat the winter mood swings that arise from seasonal affective disorder.

A common treatment of SAD is light therapy, also known as phototherapy. Light therapy involves a device that mimics the natural outdoor light. Light therapy eases SAD symptoms and affects the brains chemicals linked to mood and sleep. Talking to your doctor about your individual symptoms will be important for effective light therapy prescription (Mayo, 2017). Because natural light may be hard to come by in your office space, you could talk to your workplace to see if they would allow a small light therapy boxes within the office.

Another solution involves the encouragement of outdoor walks. See if your workplace has an employee-led walk club that is willing to walk outside during warmer winter days. If your building has windows, you take a stroll around the office or station yourself by a window periodically if your desk isn’t already by one.

With seasonal affective disorder comes increased appetite and weight gain. See if your workplace has healthy alternatives for lunch, otherwise pack your own! Find a way to maintain your physical activity throughout the winter months. Maybe that means finding a friend to join a gym with you or setting up phone alerts that will remind you of your upcoming workouts.

Other strategies to a happier you during the winter months involve avoiding alcohol, practicing mindfulness meditation and yoga, and focusing on the social relationships you currently hold. Check your Employee Assistance Program to see what services are available.

The first step to taking action is recognizing your symptoms and finding simple, effective means to get you through the winter blues. Use the workplace as an opportunity for discussion surrounding the depressive symptoms experienced during winter. Having such conversations will educate the workforce as a whole, cultivating effective solutions and creating a happier workplace environment.


Cotterell, D. (2010). Pathogenesis and management of seasonal affective disorder. Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry, 14 (5). Retrieved from

Mayo Clinic. (2017, Oct 25). Seasonal affective disorder. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic. (2017, Feb 8). Light Therapy. Retrieved from