I think it’s fair to say I don’t need to explain why 2020 has been a ride. Not only did most of us have to deal with the sudden switch to remote working, but also with the worry and panic from a global health crisis that still lingers on.

We’ve started to lose a couple of hours of sunlight too, which heavily affects our mood and consequently, our productivity at work. As we set our clocks back, many of us gear for the winter blues that creep up all of a sudden.

As parts of the world are warned of a second wave and another lockdown, there are concerns of increased social isolation in the winter. And there’s more reason to believe that the loneliness and uncertainty from the pandemic will intensify symptoms for many. Not to mention flu season or the timely drama that comes with a major US election.

Feeling SAD is not new

Does a low mood, lethargy, and drowsiness during the winter sound familiar? Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is all too real and definitely not new to 2020. During the winter months, SAD affects 6% of the total US population. As well, 14% of US adults suffer from winter blues, a lesser form of seasonal mood changes. On top of changes in personal motivation and energy, relationships and work productivity are significantly impacted too.

It’s worth noting that three quarters of people who suffer from SAD are women, and that the end of Daylight Savings Time, November 1 this year, is often associated with a rise in depressive episodes.

But the pandemic compounds the threat of SAD

It’s our first winter during a pandemic, perhaps meaning double trouble…

As a direct result of COVID-19, being in the proximity of others is conceived as an anxious threat rather than an enjoyable occasion. Needless to say, this is very challenging for us social animals. Contrary to popular opinion, the lack of commute from remote work might actually hinder our moods during the winter months due to the reduced physical activity and being in the lively presence of other people. Sometimes cozying at home will lead to a loss of momentum as well as a draining of optimism and drive.

Months of social distancing and limited interactions, in particular the forced shift towards remote work explains why. In fact, most of us could still do with improvements to our home office. Anyone else sick of working in their dark basement apartment? Without connection from in-person socializing at the office, combined with employees suffering from screen fatigue due to video conferencing, the chances are more people will be vulnerable to SAD.

How this plays out in the workplace (in this case, home)

SAD can result in feelings of isolation, frequent absences, reduced productivity, and lower concentration. In 2018, Workforce.com noted that employees experiencing SAD can cost employers up to $51billion. Here are some personal strategies that may help employees lessen SAD’s impact—on them and their employers:

Have a comprehensive game plan for this winter: Keep a “pool” of wellness activities handy when the blues hit. You can line up resources, like book therapist appointments earlier if you can, and be open to online therapy.

Light up your day: Reduced sunlight compounds the affect of social isolation, so take Vitamin D frequently, as recent research shows that deficiency may increase chances of depression. Make sure you have plenty of exposure to sunlight: opening blinds or turning on lights can be a mood booster under cold weather, and many people also rely on light therapy lamps. An outdoor walk to have some fresh air helps (even on cloudy days).

Be diligent with movement: You might be tempted to just curl up and have a cozy night in…every day. But it’s in the winter times where we need to prioritize and be diligent with physical activity. If you’re cautious about going to public gyms and studios, then at-home yoga or playing games like RingFit on the Switch are good options too!

Keep a routine: Even if it’s hard to wake up, do your best to create a “normal workday” and stick with it. This is called behavioral activation, where you help your body be on a roll to gain momentum and kill sluggishness. A schedule that designates clear time slots for sleep, meals, exercise, and self-care can welcome a sense of familiarity in uncertain times. Make sure to schedule regular phone calls with loved ones too!

Remember, it’s a balancing act: Stay informed with the news, but be mindful of too much. Media is often triggering and we’re already carrying greater emotional baggage than usual.  Keeping up with the always-changing public health advice, especially in physical lockdowns, comes at a cost to mental health.

What employers can offer

By now, it should be obvious that leaders ought not to turn a blind eye to this problem. Managers have a strong influence over employee happiness and wellbeing. It’s essential as an organization, especially on the direct manager level, to set the tone and implement initiatives that prevent or relieve SAD symptoms that employees are experiencing. Often this is addressed by building an inclusive work atmosphere and supportive management culture. Bolstering employee job satisfaction and helping them feel supported should be a priority too.

Be proactive: Even though it’s likely that employees aren’t going into the office, it’s worth holding a Zoom session or two about mental health resources available to them. When leaders initiate vulnerable conversations about mental health instead of the other way around, employees may feel more open to showing their struggles and talking about them.

Offer flexibility: Allowing employees to take control of their workday could effectively help with those who would benefit from enjoying more of that rare sunshine before or after  work, or from being able to schedule a mid-day counselling session.This also means this season might be a good time to activate asynchronous communication.

Recognition of good work: Taking time to give a personal thank you or celebrate progress does tons to employee morale. We know how rewards and recognition actively relieves stress, increases self-esteem, and maximizes productivity. Show how much you value your teammates!

Encourage breaks: Do you find that you’re often stuck to your desk at home, taking much shorter breaks? According to the 2020 state of remote work report, 7% of remote work respondents report difficulty concentrating, and 18% reported that they were unable to unplug when they’re working from home. Actively encouraging your employees to take breaks or go for a walk is a healthy precaution to burnout and SAD.


While it’s the responsibility of individuals to seek treatment plans for their seasonal depression, a caring and empathetic employer should take measures to support employees through transitions and difficult times. Don’t be surprised if there’s an uptick of sick days in the upcoming months—a culture of understanding is where employees unite and grow together. Whether employees disclose their mental health issues or not, it’s helpful to be aware of potential threats to employee wellness, productivity, and happiness.