Five ways to help your staff deal with seasonal affective disorder

With lockdown coinciding with shorter days and lower temperatures, many employees are struggling with mental ill-health. Jake Third explains how managers can support them

Lockdown 2.0 is now in full swing, but some elements of it are a little different from the spring. Notably, it’s getting darker far earlier and the temperature is beginning to drop. The commute has practically disappeared for many of us, and some can even go days without getting out and getting natural sunlight.

Every year seasonal affective disorder affects millions of people. But this year, you also need to add concern for loved ones, personal health and job security into the mix. So it’s no wonder that half of UK workers are currently reporting symptoms of depression such as sadness, irritability and emotional exhaustion.

Employers need to address this issue without hesitation. From my experience as MD at Hallam, there are a few small actions that will make a real difference when implemented by managers. The below will help to support your team’s mental health:

Let your team work flexibly to get out in the daylight

In the UK, we get around seven hours of sunlight per day during the winter. When the average working day is eight hours, and the commute is gone, it can prove difficult to get a daylight walk in before or after the workday.

You should consider letting your team work more flexible hours, as long as they are able to meet deadlines and attend meetings. Whether that means starting 30 minutes earlier or later in the day, a walk in the daylight can prove wonders for mental health.

We also actively encourage our team to take extended lunch breaks, giving them time to walk outside during sunlight hours. And if you trust your team to work when they want, they are more likely to deliver favourable outcomes if they are healthy, happy and positive. 

Consider training staff as mental health first aiders

A mental health first aider (MHFA) is an employee who is trained to provide mental health support. This scheme gives employees a chance to have a confidential place to go to if they are struggling to be heard, empathise with and signposted to the best source of support. All of our MHFAs are also trained by Nottingham Samaritans.

We have seen around 10 per cent of our workforce access our MHFAs and they get great reviews. However, having MHFAs not only benefits the few that use them. It shows you are taking mental health seriously, for those who may need to take advantage of the offering in the future. 

If you can show that you support your workforce’s mental health, it can have a domino effect in the future. It will create a culture where your team can feel emotionally safe and know that you’re willing to listen.

Offer professional support and counselling

Providing access to a free-of-charge counselling service is also a fantastic employee benefit, and can be an escalation point for MHFA’s to refer an employee to. All names of employees using your MHFA or counselling service should be confidential.

In our experience, this therapy service has been accessed by 5 per cent of the team – but it offers a far deeper form of support and intervention than the MHFAs. Within the last six months, this has cost us less than £500 and has been a vital lifeline for our team.

Embrace peer-to-peer feedback

The research is clear that giving people advice when they are struggling is not that helpful. Instead, the individual giving the advice benefits, rather than those who receive it.

Exercise, diet and lifestyle can also have a huge impact on wellbeing. But you run the risk of coming across as patronising when purely the senior management team suggests tips to help your mental health. One way to combat this is by running a session where the team share their own routines and practices that have helped them with their peers. By sharing advice in a group, it helps contributors to confirm which of their activities is most helpful.

Take a head-on approach to toxic behaviour

Toxicity in the workplace can significantly affect mental health. And one recent study found that it can even affect your employees’ sleep – no one wants their staff starting the day tired.

This is one of the times when leaders can get it wrong. Some can take compliments very well, but struggle to handle being confronted over any toxic behaviour. If you want to look after your team’s wellbeing, start from the top. Toxic behaviours can have no role in your organisation. 

Your goal as an employer shouldn’t just be to ‘make people feel better’. This is vague and doesn’t include implementable actions. Instead, you should consider following a number of actions to create a culture that is conducive to individual flourishing. Make sure to tell your team that you are always there to chat, and that is absolutely OK not to be OK.

This decade will be renowned for the pandemic and its consequential effects on us as a society. Our ability to navigate our teams through the quick-sand will be a defining factor in modern leadership.

Jake Third is managing director at Hallam