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Can the winter blues be a disability?

January 4, 2017

By Kristen Cifolelli, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

The holidays are over, it’s cold and dark and we have a long way to go until spring.  Most of us at some point or another will feel the effects of the winter blues, from feeling lethargic, unmotivated to even experiencing some mood changes.  For some individuals, the winter blues go much beyond that into a subtype of a major depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same time every year with symptoms starting in the late fall or early winter and continuing on into the winter months. For most people affected by SAD, these symptoms dissipate during the sunnier months of spring and summer.

According to the Mayo Clinic, some common symptoms of SAD include, irritability, oversleeping, tiredness or low energy, problems getting along with other people, decreased socialization, feeling hopeless, and feeling depressed most of the day, every day.  

While the causes of SAD remain unknown, reduced levels of sunlight are believed to be a factor in the winter onset of SAD.  The reduced sunlight may disrupt an individual’s internal clock and can cause a drop in serotonin levels which may be a trigger for depression.  The change in season can also disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Because winter depression is most likely caused by a reaction to a lack of sunlight, common treatments include getting exposure to natural sunlight and using broad-band light therapy.  This requires a special light box or a light visor worn on the head like a cap. The individual either sits in front of the light box or wears the light visor for a certain length of time each day.  Other therapies include medication and psychotherapy.

But is SAD a condition that is covered by the ADA?

Once an employer becomes aware of an employee’s disability, the ADA requires the employer to provide a “reasonable accommodation” that would allow the employee to perform the essential functions of their job. In 2012, the seventh circuit court found that permitting an employee to work in an area that had natural light can be a reasonable accommodation.

In 2012, the seventh circuit court of appeals upheld a jury verdict where a school district was found to be liable under the ADA for failing to provide a 1st grade teacher with a classroom that provided natural sunlight when the district was put on notice that she suffered from SAD (Ekstrand v. Somerset School District).  For a period of years Ms. Ekstrand made multiple requests for a classroom with windows.  She provided the district with written notice of her disability and a request for accommodation from her physician.  The Court of Appeals found that once the district was put on notice, they were required to accommodate her disability unless they could prove it was an undue hardship.  The court found that any costs associated with making a room change were not significant enough to cause an undue hardship.

Therefore, if an employee’s seasonal affective disorder rises to the level of a disability, they are protected by the ADA and employers are obligated to make “reasonable” accommodations.  Because SAD is not usually obvious to the employer, employees have an obligation to make their employer aware of their disability and need of an accommodation preferably through written documentation from their physician.

Some common accommodations include providing access to natural light, allowing employees to take regular breaks outside, seating the employee near a window and providing medically approved artificial light sources such as light boxes, desk lamps and visors that provide “artificial” sunlight.  Other accommodations may include adjusting work hours and having flexible start times in order to accommodate difficulties with oversleeping.

So before you write off an employee’s request for access to a window, consider that SAD is a disabling condition for those who suffer from it.  

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