The onset of winter, dark evenings and worsening weather can affect the mood and mental wellbeing of Ireland’s workers, says Dr Sarah O’Neill of Spectrum Wellness.
As winter sets in, the evenings are darker and exposure to natural light diminishes. For many people across Ireland, their daily commute is conducted in darkness and the everyday things that can be so important for our mental health and wellbeing, such as exercise and meeting friends, can feel much harder to fit in. According to Dr Sarah O’Neill, Director of Mental Health at Spectrum Wellness, Ireland’s largest corporate health and wellbeing provider, there can be a tangible impact on mental health and wellbeing associated with this time of year.
'People may be familiar with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), which is a pattern associated with mood disorders such as major depressive or bipolar disorder. Whilst SAD actually affects relatively few people, the changes associated with the time of year can affect our mood and our sense of overall wellbeing.'
In the workplace, seasonal mood changes can result in greater levels of absenteeism and reduced productivity levels during the long, dark winter months. Staff morale can dip, directly impacting the wider working environment. 'For employers, changes may be subtle, and they might feel it is not their place to get involved if a member of staff appears to be struggling. But it is often in the best interest of both employer and employee that emotional wellbeing issues are addressed proactively, to reduce any negative outcomes and help ensure employees feel supported in the workplace,' said Dr O’Neill.
Given the number of hours spent at work, Dr O’Neill advises incorporating policies that support both emotional and physical wellbeing, as it makes any issues much easier to speak about openly.
Dr O’Neil offers some practical advice to employers on dealing with mood difficulties brought on by the change in seasons.
One of the easiest steps an employer can take is to ensure all blinds are open and lights are on before staff arrive to work, so that they are immediately entering a light-filled space.
In addition to creating light-filled spaces, organisations should encourage employees to get as much natural light and fresh air during the day as possible and practicable. Small but important steps such as facilitating regular breaks or organising a company-wide walk at lunchtime can be hugely beneficial. Rearranging office furniture so that desks are placed beside windows is also helpful.
Flexible working hours can be positive for a business and its employees. Allowing staff to gain more daylight either before or after their working hours can help counter the effects of the change in season or might simply enable them to get out for a run or walk, more easily.
Many of us have a tendency to eat more during the dark, winter months, and appetite changes and changes in body weight can be associated with mood difficulties. Providing healthy options in the staff canteen or in reception, such as free fruit or herbal teas, coupled with a workshop or webinar on healthy eating for winter, are great ways to support staff and help them make healthier choices.
To help promote general emotional wellbeing, it’s important to keep an open line of communication year-round and more and more employers are recognising their responsibility in this regard. Mindfulness programmes and access to support helplines via an Employee Assist Programme (EAP) are supports that many companies in Ireland now offer their staff. Last year alone the Spectrum Wellness clinically-lead EAP team handled 4,000 calls to its 24-hour helpline from people going through mental wellbeing difficulties.
“Mood changes are not unusual and people shouldn’t be overly concerned if they notice a dip in energy levels or a change in appetite. However, when such changes negatively impact our physical or mental wellbeing they cannot be ignored, particularly at work, where we spend so much of our day,” said Dr O’Neill. 'If someone feels overwhelmed by changes in their mood, or they experience difficulties coping day to day, engaging with professional support may be helpful. If that can be accessed through the workplace, it’s a great place to start.'