October 12, 2018

Don't fall back into the winter blues

Combating fatigue and seasonal depression

As daylight savings time comes to an end and the days grow shorter, we’re reminded that soon, Nov. 4 to be exact, we’ll be turning the clocks backward once again. And though it may seem like an extra hour of sleep, researchers have found most working adults only gain an extra 17 minutes. The time change actually signals a season marked by fatigue, depression and increased health risks.

Societally, the impacts of the season change may be viewed as a personal issue, but it can affect the workplace dramatically. Fatigue itself costs companies $2,000 per employee annually, and it’s likely that depression could cost companies much more than that.

More than any other natural process, our bodies rely on our circadian rhythm to cue us when it’s time to eat, sleep and exercise. This rhythm is largely determined by our internal 24-hour clock, but it is also affected by external factors like sunlight and temperature. So when wintertime rolls around, shorter days and colder temperatures affect us physically as well as mentally.

Melatonin, serotonin and seasonal depression

The biggest culprit in the winter doldrums is likely melatonin regulation. Because most 8-5ers awake before sunrise in the winter months, our brains forget to shut off melatonin production in our waking hours, leading to increased daytime fatigue. Before we know it, we’re driving back home in the dark, and before even eating dinner, our bodies signal melatonin production once again. It’s why even humans feel like we enter hibernation mode in the winter.

Directly correlated to increased levels of melatonin is decreased serotonin, the “happy chemical.” Without our regular stream of serotonin, our energy levels decrease, making us less likely to exercise; we begin craving simple sugars and carbohydrates, causing us to put on weight; and decreased energy keeps us away from positive social engagement, leading to isolation. All of these are classic symptoms of SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.

An estimated 14 million Americans have SAD, perhaps more commonly known as seasonal depression, though many more struggle during the winter months with these symptoms to a lesser degree. Although we can’t ask for the sun to rise an hour earlier in the winter, there are ways to combat SAD. Until recently, light therapy was the most common prescription for beating the doldrums. This is a treatment where patients would sit in front of a light box for a set time each morning to mimic sun exposure. But studies have shown that simply talking about the condition to a therapist can help people better understand SAD and how to overcome its effects.

Now what?

For everyday alleviation, it’s particularly important to regulate your sleeping habits. The week before daylight savings time ends, try adjusting your bedtime a few minutes earlier each night so that your hormones aren’t thrown out of whack when the clocks are pushed back an hour. Throughout the winter, make sure you turn off electronics an hour before bed and regulate what you eat and drink late at night. A simple fix for those who hate waking in the dark is to purchase a “wake-up light” alarm that mimics sunrise light, helping your body to begin shutting off melatonin production even when it’s still dark outside.

Regular exercise and social engagement seem to be the two biggest factors in overcoming SAD, and can easily be encouraged in the workplace. To avoid the financial burdens of SAD, schedule weekly lunches out for you and your employees to get them out of the office and into a social setting. It’s also a great time of year to start those workplace yoga classes you’ve been wanting to implement. And make sure to stock the common fridge with some fruits and veggies to brighten up everyone’s day.

To learn more about the benefits of wellness at work, visit our Health and Wellness page.