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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

What You Need to Know if You Think Seasonal Depression's Affecting Your Work

With the thrill of the holidays long gone and New Year’s motivation fading fast, you may feel like you’re settling in for an interminable winter slump. With this season (if you live in a region that experiences the four seasons) comes familiar, groan-inducing moments: chilly mornings that make getting out bed a chore, navigating sick co-workers, and trudging through gray days fit for hibernating.

But if you notice a persistent lethargy following you around and impacting your mood, something more than the basic cold-weather doldrums may be at play. You may be one of over ten million people who struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that begins in late fall and lasts through the winter.

Experts believe that SAD is related to hormonal changes during certain times of the year. The lack of daylight in the winter months throws off the body’s natural rhythm and lowers serotonin–a brain chemical related to energy and mood. The result can be feelings of sadness, fatigue, and even physical changes like insomnia and weight gain.

Getting through the workday with a mental health issue such as seasonal depression can feel like an uphill battle. That’s because SAD can impact everything from your productivity and focus to relationships with your co-workers and boss.

If you suspect SAD is affecting your work and happiness, here are a few steps to take:

Don’t Ignore the Signs

While gloomy winter weather can lead even the most ambitious person to crave cozy pajamas and a hot mug of tea, don’t minimize your concerns if you suspect there’s something serious going on.

It may be time to seek help if you notice the following for two weeks or longer:

  • You’re super sensitive to stress, quick to anger, or feel anxious
  • You avoid social interactions with colleagues
  • You feel a loss of passion towards your job, interests, or tasks you usually enjoy
  • You’re apathetic towards work and your goals
  • You have trouble concentrating
  • You’re oversleeping–and it’s negatively impacting your life, causing you to be late or miss important commitments
  • Your afternoon cravings for sweets are out of control
  • You need an entire weekend on the couch to recoup because you’re so exhausted

If these changes are cyclical—that is, if you’ve noticed they appear each fall or winter and dissipate as the days get longer and warmer, you may have SAD.

The best place to start? See your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and recommendations for treatment.

Do Make Your Health a Priority

Now may not be the ideal time to attempt a major career change or new adventure, especially if it’ll put a strain on your physical or mental health. Instead, make tending to your well-being part of your job description and daily checklist.

Double down on the basics like exercise, eating well, drinking plenty of water and logging a full eight hours of sleep each night. This may involve making smart-but-tough decisions like saying no to new projects, turning down networking events, or skipping team happy hours for the time being.

Do Set Realistic Expectations

SAD amplifies feelings of overwhelm and mental fog, which can interfere with your ability to get anything done. If you find yourself here, you can adopt simple, science-based strategies to make the most of your time and the energy you do have.

First, see if there's anything you can take off of your to-do list. If possible, focus on one chief initiative each day or week, or try working in 20-minute bursts called Pomodoros. Break down big projects into do-able steps such as such creating one slide for a presentation or writing a single paragraph of a multi-page report.

If trimming your actual to-do list isn't possible, then consider giving yourself a break for not going above and beyond right now. Wait for an opportunity to impress your boss or take on a huge project unprompted once you're feeling more like yourself.

Don’t Judge Yourself

Seasonal depression can lead to critical thoughts like “I’m not good enough,” “I’m so lazy” or debilitating behaviors such as worrying and avoidance. High-achievers are particularly prone to self-bashing even though a real medical issue may be making it hard to concentrate and work to the best of their ability.

Adjusting your goals or planned workload doesn’t make you weak or a failure, rather it’s a sign of mental strength and maturity. Avoid comparing yourself to what your co-workers are doing or what you see friends and colleagues doing on social media.

Remember, seasonal depression has a biological basis and impacts the body’s hormones and brain. It’s a real medical issue that can lead to problems concentrating and low energy—it’s not simply a matter of willpower and forcing yourself to work harder.

Do See The Light

Consider adding a light box to your desk. These devices simulate sunshine, increase serotonin, and boost mood, research shows. Sitting closer to a window or opting for walking meetings outdoors in the afternoon are other ways to get more rays during your work day.

Depending on the nature of your impairment as a result of SAD, you may be eligible for other accommodations to help you cope such as a flexible schedule or remote working options. Know your rights and learn about other mental health benefits your employer may offer, such as counseling services through an Employee Assistance Program.

A key to success is prioritizing what matters, and right now, that’s your health. Step into the role of being CEO of your mental and emotional wellbeing. After all, it’s the most valuable career asset you have.

Photo of man on computer courtesy of Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images.