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Can lack of daylight affect performance?

January 20, 2016

By Cheryl Kuch, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

So the holidays are over and we are all back to work in full swing. And for us Midwesterners, winter has sprung its frigid temperatures and long nights on us. Many of us arrive at work when it’s dark and leave in the dark – the days are short.  And for an estimated 10 million Americans who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) according to the National Mental Health Association, this lack of exposure to daylight can have significant impact. Can that impact extend to employee work performance? And if it can, what can employers do to positively impact their employees during this dark time? 

From the simpler and milder “winter blues” to the more severe “Seasonal Affective Disorder” SAD, these conditions affect the behavior of millions of Americans each year. SAD is an extreme form of common seasonal mood disorders, a form of depression which occurs during the same season every year. It is not the figment of a few hypochondriacs’ imaginations; it is a real condition, recognized by the American Psychological Association as a serious medical condition.

It has also been recognized by the courts, a fact that HR leaders need to keep in mind. In a well-documented case from 2012, a primary school teacher in Wisconsin who was assigned to a classroom without windows was diagnosed with SAD. She requested to be assigned to a classroom with windows in order to get more exposure to natural light. Her request was turned down by her school district; she sued the district in federal court under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), arguing that the district denied her a reasonable accommodation for her condition. She lost at the trial court level but appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court ruled in her favor, sending the case back to the trial court for a jury trial. The jury returned a verdict in her favor.

For most sufferers, the winter is the most common time to experience SAD, the months of November through March are most common.

Among many symptoms that victims of SAD may experience include depression, loss of energy, social withdrawal, irritability and moodiness and fatigue. Such symptoms can certainly affect performance and relationships at work. Attendance issues, poor work quality, apathy, disconnection and trouble concentrating might be some ways this disorder can affect performance.

Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes SAD, but the main factor is believed to be reduction in exposure to daylight.  This reduction is thought to impact the body’s biological clock, which controls daily biological  rhythms and sleep-wake patterns.  It also has can impair the level of serotonin in our brain, which many scientists believe can negatively affect one’s mood. 

There are some things employers might do to help employees suffering from SAD:

  • Support employees with SAD. A doctor’s diagnosis will help determine if a reasonable accommodation is required in which the employee might ask for the use of a light box.  Take these requests seriously; they may be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Make sure managers are aware of the ADA and how it might be impacted in these situations
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy—i.e., educating employees about the nature and causes of SAD—can help. It is known that consciously behaving in ways that are opposite to behaviors that are symptomatic of SAD (see above) can head off symptoms of SAD.
  • Encourage and allow employees to get away from their desk during lunch and breaks and take walks outside. Remember that exposure to natural light can help relive symptoms of SAD. 
  • Allow flexibility in schedule or work location.  Perhaps a later start time might help, as could arranging for employees to work where there is more natural light.
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