During winter Leadership Coaching Sessions, female leaders often complain, “Employee morale is so low on gloomy winter days! My team members and direct reports left for the holidays energized and happy. Some of them returned in January exhausted and crabby. Even some of my best performers seem difficult to motivate right now.”
“A few people have short tempers. One guy acts lethargic. One woman seems depressed. That behavior isn’t like either of these people! I’m not acting different than I did in December and they’re doing the same work they did before the holidays. They don’t return from summer vacations this way. They come back to work rested, in a good mood and ready to work. What’s the problem after a winter vacation?”
The leaders I coach are relieved to learn about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I teach them how to recognize and combat SAD symptoms. This is critical to the success of my female clients because SAD can cripple workplace morale, productivity and teamwork.
After my clients use the proven strategies I’m sharing with you in this article, their employees, team members and direct reports reward them with heart-felt appreciation. For weeks, they hear, “Thank you so much for caring about my health and well-being! You helped me understand why I was struggling at work every day. Now I’m back on track!”
The benefits for the leaders I coach don’t end with the pleasure of hearing sincere gratitude. One team leader was financially compensated with a promotion. Another of my clients was honored by an invitation to present her new strategies to other leaders when upper management noticed the elevated employee morale, teamwork and productivity my client’s efforts created.
The Reason for Winter Blues at Work
Many people fatigue more easily during the winter months. People often say it’s more difficult to stay motivated or reach their peak performance during the season of short daylight. Even though only 6% of the U.S. population suffers from SAD in its most marked form, another 14% of the adult U.S. population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as “winter blues.”
In other words, it’s common for leaders to see employees suffering from SAD, particularly in climates with frequent gray skies or short winter days. Even people in sunny Florida are sometimes affected by the winter blues syndrome.
SAD is associated with changes in environmental light, overcast days and inadequate indoor lighting. SAD is not only related to blue moods. SAD can create health problems because common symptoms include daytime fatigue, sugar binges, carbohydrate craving, weight gain, lethargy, hopelessness, lack of interest in normal activities, and social withdrawal. SAD sufferers often hate to get out of bed in the morning because they don’t feel rested.
Please note that SAD is different from serious clinical depression, which can occur all during the year. Although both maladies can occur during winter months and some symptoms are similar, SAD is a predictable, seasonal disorder.
SAD symptoms can also distort employees’ perceptions of a work environment they normally enjoy. When people are unaware of the effects of seasonal change on themselves or unhappy co-workers, SAD can destroy their mental focus. When peak performance plunges into a negative zone, because of the way our brains work, we can begin to associate work with exhaustion, low performance and unhappiness.
Keys to greater leadership success, regardless of the season, include the information I’m sharing with you. Whether you are a business owner or a corporate leader, you can easily and inexpensively correct root causes of mild SAD related to natural light deficiency.
How You Can Transform Sad to Glad at Work
Light therapy has long been considered the ideal treatment for SAD. Full-spectrum bulbs and bulbs with color temperatures between 3000 and 6500 degrees can blast the winter blahs away, like a gust of wintry wind whisks a dust ball out of sight. Some studies have indicated that up to 86% of people affected by winter SAD completely overcame their symptoms when special light bulbs were consistently used.
Dedicated light boxes are also available for personal use at home, at work or both. They generate at least 10,000 lux and are specifically designed to treat SAD and other mood disorders. Their use is fully described in Norman Rosenthal’s 2012 book, “Winter Blues.” For example, a light box is most effective when used between 20-90 minutes per day, as early in the morning as possible throughout the season of SAD.
Ordinary fluorescent lights, on the other hand, receive a mixed review. Some people report that fluorescents assist with SAD, but ultraviolet light can harm your eyes and skin. Fluorescents can also rob your body of B vitamins, which are so essential to your happiness that many health practitioners prescribe a B vitamin complex for people experiencing depression.
Case Study #1: Transform Cranky to Calm Alert
This is an excerpt from one of the case studies I conducted before I wrote the book, “Joy on the Job.” The setting was a nonprofit agency headquartered in western Washington State, an area known for short winter days. The skies in this damp, cold climate were overcast for months at a time. Personnel who were affected by SAD talked openly, “My mind feels dull. My enthusiasm flew south with the sunshine,” “My mood sucks,” “I have no energy,” and “I hate the winter blahs.” Tardiness and absenteeism increased as the dreary winter drug on, day by day, week by week, month after month. The usually effective ways designed to lighten up and have fun at work floundered because almost everyone’s energy was lower than normal.
After installing full-spectrum bulbs in the work area, we noted an immediate decrease in fatigue and irritability. The cost was tiny compared to the boost in morale that everyone enjoyed. Teamwork soared because people were happier during their work hours. Because of the way the human brain works, employees began to associate “work” with “happiness at work.” Workers described their new mood as “calm alertness.” That’s the mind state that allows air traffic controllers to conduct complicated tasks in a relaxed, focused manner. (Research concludes that, unless there is a crisis in the airways, the average air traffic controller is quite relaxed and capable at the same time.)
Because of the pleasant calm-alert state created by the full-spectrum bulbs we installed, employees involved in the case study stopped over-sleeping. They arrived at work on time and with elevated enthusiasm. Of course, health care costs also quickly declined. Other organizations in the area wanted to know the secret of the happiness at work we had achieved. There was a hunger for good news during the winter doldrum season. Soon, other agencies adopted the practices we had field tested.
Case Study #2: Prevent Light-Based Anger and Aggression
Although SAD is usually discussed with respect to symptoms like those of depression, confusion and low energy, lighting can also be related to anger and aggression. Sometimes exchanging a colored incandescent bulb for a low-watt light bulb can transform a nasty temper into a state of serenity. A pale purple incandescent bulb can create cheerfulness by mimicking daylight.
Light can work for or against us. When light is direct, glaring, or ultra-bright, it can cause eyestrain, headaches, irritability and arguments. I’ve coached groups that reported significant improvements in their work partnerships once they understood other people’s unique requirements regarding light exposure.
As a company executive in one case study reported, “I was not only worried, I was baffled by our unhealthy group dynamics. Once I used coaching sessions to gain practical information about toxic workplace emotions, our team began to enjoy calm, creative meetings I no longer dreaded attending. Unnecessary arguments based on simple misunderstandings became productive, problem-solving opportunities.”
I’ve also coached leaders who worked with personnel who arrived at work irritable because they had worked on company computer projects late into the evening without wearing blue-light blockers. Neither the company nor the workers knew they had interfered with their melatonin-based sleep patterns, so they “never felt rested” for the next work day. After securing blue-light blockers for these employees, their performance soared in ways related to the elevation in their mood and focus.
What Else Helps Your Employees Turn Sad to Glad?
Because SAD is related to daylight, it’s also helpful to increase outdoor activity, especially on sunny days. Humans weren’t designed to stay in enclosed buildings all day. We are hunters and gatherers by nature. Our brains haven’t evolved since our early cave-dwelling days. Many of my clients who suffer from depression have gained significant relief from exercise combined with 30 minutes of exposure to natural light in the morning. Some people use a light box. Others use full-spectrum light bulbs.
Gaining additional natural exposure to sunlight can significantly elevate your energy level during winter months. That’s why I always encourage leaders and their employees to go outside, when possible, during short work breaks. Take full advantage of the beautiful ball of golden light that shimmers in the sky, even if it’s a partially cloudy day. The sun is an amazing free resource.
Eating a balanced diet can also be immensely helpful in counteracting a person’s tendency toward seasonal affective disorder. If you are a leader in a corporation, you may want to involve your HR Department in disseminating information about the value of sunshine breaks as well as potentially helpful dietary changes. This can be an easy sell because there is abundant research about the mental focus, productivity, health, mood and other positive effects of natural light and good nutrition.
Encourage employees to notice when they’re craving sugar or carbohydrates. They can check in with themselves by asking a simple question, “I wonder if I’ll still want to stuff myself with sugar or carbs after I enjoy the benefits of natural daylight?” When fatigue or a bad mood threatens to sour their smile, they can ask the question, “What is my body telling me I need right now?”
Side Benefits of Sunshine Can Even Include a Promotion
As a coach, my clients always tell me they gain tremendous benefits when they’re more in touch with their bodies. They say they’re so much happier when they tune into internal clues. Our culture tends to forget that we are body, mind and spirit. Everything you do to approach your life holistically will help you gain greater harmony, happiness and health. Some of my clients have dropped excess weight when they used the suggestions in this article.
Whether you’re an executive, team leader or business owner, you’ll quickly gain appreciation when you use these proven, thoughtful approaches to overcome SAD at work. Survey the people who work in your organization before and after you address SAD. One of my clients credits his promotion to his thoughtful, practical approach to absenteeism, tardiness and low work performance. Employees often report their new level of clarity and focus enhances their ability to excel in their work.
Discover Additional Women’s Leadership Success Strategies
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