“It’s dark so early.”

“I miss the sun!”

“Who came up with daylight saving time, anyway?) (It wasn’t farmers or Benjamin Franklin.)

Must be winter.

The go-to small talk at the end of the day is all dark and gloomy, and the loss of sunlight could have an unsuspecting impact on your employees through a serious health condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, sometimes called SAD or seasonal depression, is a specific type of depression recognized by the American Psychiatry Association. It affects about 5 percent of adult Americans a year and can be debilitating for those who suffer from it. It is:

  • A depression that settles in from late falls through the winter
  • Four times more likely in women
  • Likely to onset between the ages of 18 and 30
  • More common in people who live far from the equator



How Does SAD Interact with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Other Regulations?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), depression – including SAD – is protected by the ADA. Because of that distinction, remember:

  • It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of a mental health condition.
  • Employers may need to make accommodations to support employees with SAD.
  • Employers cannot fire employees based on the condition, but instead have objective evidence the employee cannot perform job duties even with reasonable accommodations.

Action Plan for HR Professionals

The ADA dictates some matters in handling employees with SAD, but there are many ways to create a more compassionate and employee-friendly environment.

  • Listen without judgment and know how to check in with a struggling employee.
  • Use preventative measures when possible:

    • Embrace a company culture that keeps stress levels low (stress is a SAD risk factor).
    • Take away the stigma of depression by making mental health a priority in the workplace.
    • Let as much natural light into the workspace as possible to amp up natural circadian rhythms.
  • Don’t expect details. According to the EEOC, employers can’t ask about health issues unless:
    • The employee asks for a reasonable accommodation
    • The same questions are asked of everyone during the post-offer, pre-hire stage.
    • It is part of an affirmative action program for people with disabilities (applicants can choose not to respond).
    • There is objective on-the-job evidence that the employee isn’t doing their job or is a safety risk due to the condition.
  • Offer Common SAD accommodations, such as:
    • Light therapy boxes
    • Moving the employee to a spot that gets better sun exposure
    • Extending outdoor breaks
    • Changing the employee’s schedule
    • Offering leave for treatment
  • Inform your employee about the company’s mental health benefits, such as Employee Assistance Program.
  • Implement a “return-to-work” program that formalizes the process, perhaps with reduced hours and remote working when possible.

With many companies striving to provide employees with a customer-like experience, being prepared to address health conditions like depression and SAD is critical to your employer brand. By doing it well, you’re not only creating a culture of support and wellness, you’re also putting your investment in your people on full display.

This article is meant to assist HR professionals in addressing SAD in the workplace. It is not health or legal advice. If you think you may be suffering from SAD, contact your healthcare provider.