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Increase Engagement While Battling the Blues of Seasonal Affective Disorder

While Daylight Savings Time has helped some cope with the winter blues, on Feb. 2 groundhog Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter and temperatures are still low. People may experience reduced work productivity throughout these gloomy months from symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, problems concentrating, withdrawal from social contacts and more – these are all symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a form of depression that some people experience to varying degrees as the days grow shorter in the northern hemisphere in the fall and winter. Employees battling SAD in the workplace may need an assist to push through the season and maintain engagement levels.

Organizations may aid employees with SAD by taking the following steps to maintain/increase employee engagement during the winter months.

Flex Hours
While experts are unclear on the exact causes of SAD, the decreasing amount of light during the winter may impact the production of the mood-altering brain chemical serotonin. A flex schedule can make it possible for employees to gain greater exposure to the sun during the daytime to ease the symptoms caused by the lack of sunlight.

A later start time when experiencing SAD symptoms can help elevate mood at the beginning of the day. Oversleeping or difficulty awakening in the morning are common SAD symptoms that flex hours can help reduce. While not all companies can allow a flex schedule, it is a growing trend that is worth considering to keep engagement levels high when darkness lingers.

Wellness Initiatives
Fatigue, weight gain, and carbohydrate cravings are all things one may experience when suffering from SAD. Increasing physical activity and blood flow with wellness initiatives during the workday can help reduce these symptoms.

Encourage group physical activities in the office, like gathering to go on a walk at lunch, scheduling walking meetings, or encouraging employees to take the stairs rather than the elevator. Promote yoga activities that can be done at one’s desk. Shannon Vincent, principal consultant at Avatar Solutions, says, “There are great websites like Yoga Journal and MindBodyGreen that provide easy sample routines that can be posted in the office, sent out to staff members, or done together as a group in a common area. Taking even a short five minute ‘time out’ during the day can do wonders for one’s mental focus and well-being.” By decreasing fatigue with physical activity, it will allow engagement levels to increase.

Healthy Snacks
SAD can also increase appetite and carb cravings, as evidenced by the preponderance of sweets that can be found in many employee common areas from December through February. Consuming too many carbs throughout the day can cause fatigue. Overloading on carbs may slow you down, which in the workplace often means lower productivity and engagement levels.

Provide healthier snacks, such as nuts, fruits, and vegetables in the office kitchen or break room, which will help rather than hinder energy levels. Dave Miller, senior consultant at Avatar Solutions, provides the following example from an organization that found providing healthy snacks “drove employees to get up and exercise more frequently. It also improved relationships throughout the office because more employees were interacting as they walked the floor and stopped in common gathering areas.”

Providing healthy snack options can not only help alleviate SAD symptoms like fatigue and lethargy, but it can serve to get everyone up and more socially engaged with what’s going on with coworkers in the workplace.

Bring Your Pet to Work Day
Along with the lack of sunlight, stress can also undermine productivity. Research shows that pets can have a significant impact on reducing stress levels. While stronger pet-owner bonds usually lead to the greatest stress relief, studies have shown that even brief passing encounters with animals can reduce stress.

In a 2012 study, employees who were around dogs in the workplace reported feeling less stressed than employees who have dogs but left them at home, according to researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University. If appropriate and your workplace allows it, schedule a “bring your pet to work day” in the winter months. It gives employees something to look forward to and can lead to decreased stress levels and enhanced engagement levels.

As an added bonus, having pets in the workplace helps increase engagement among coworkers by encouraging them to interact and bond over the playful pets.

Light Therapy
In an article by Dr. Louise Hartley, director of Psychology Research and Training Clinic at York University, she noted, “While for most people this [SAD] occurs in the fall and winter seasons, the symptoms can also emerge in locations where there is prolonged cloudiness in the summer or when spending large amounts of time in a windowless or badly lit environment.”

The direct overhead lighting in many offices can cause eye strain, as well as lower productivity and engagement. Here are a couple solutions to make office lighting more accommodating:

• Place a lamp on desks or in individual workspaces with softer, indirect lighting
• Maximize natural lighting by positioning desks near a window
• Try to avoid positioning computer screens where one will experience a lot of glare

SAD is not something to ignore in the workplace. Employees with SAD can experience increased appetites, fatigue, difficulty awakening in the morning, and reduced work productivity. Being mindful and making a couple of the changes outlined in this article can greatly improve productivity and an employee’s engagement levels.

Note: If you feel you are experiencing more than just the “winter blues” and may be suffering from depression, please contact your EAP/HR representative.

Murat Philippe

Murat Philippe is the director of Workforce Consulting Services for Avatar Solutions. Having worked in the survey industry for over 15 years, he functions as a key analyst and leads the workforce consulting team. In addition to speaking at national conferences and facilitating over 2,000 focus groups, Philippe guides leadership teams through results presentations, the action-planning process, and Avatar's ActionPro software. He can reached at www.avatarsolutions.com.

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