Working from home during winter could make your SAD worse – here’s how to handle it

Posted by for Mental Health

As the days get darker and we spend even less time outside as a result of working from home, we’re at greater risk of developing seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

When we first started working from home back in March, the idea that we’d be doing it for more than a couple of months was inconceivable, let alone throughout the winter months. But here we are.

As coronavirus cases rise and the government continues to advise people to avoid going into the office where possible, it seems many of us will be working from home for the foreseeable future.

And while by now most of us have been able to (somewhat) get in the swing of things when it comes to remote working, it’s undeniable that working from home during the winter months is going to throw up its own unique challenges. 

In particular, WFH during the darker months could exacerbate the seasonal affective disorder (or SAD, for short) that so many of us tend to experience at this time of year and could even lead people who have never experienced it before to feel the effects.

Sometimes known as “winter depression,” SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Although the exact cause of SAD is not understood, according to the NHS, the main theory is that the lack of sunlight exposure we experience during the autumn and winter months might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly. In turn, it is believed that this affects the production of melatonin (the hormone which makes us sleepy) and serotonin (the hormone that affects mood and appetite) and disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm.

Because working from home has led to many of us spending very little time outside, the lack of sunlight exposure we normally experience during the winter months is only going to get worse, as we’re not having to step outside to commute to work, for example. In turn, this makes it more likely that we’ll experience some form of SAD.

“With many of us working from home for the foreseeable, our usual day-to-day routines have changed,” explains Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for mental health at Bupa UK. “As we’re spending less time outside, it’s really important to watch out for the signs of SAD.”

Vandenabeele continues: “People may experience more severe SAD when working from home for a number of reasons. Mainly, its because we’re no longer leaving the house for things like our lunchbreak or our commute; many people who suffer with SAD find getting out makes them feel more energised – even if only for a short stroll – and even through the clouds, the daylight can help to boost your mood.”

A woman working from home
Working from home means we're being exposed to a lot less sunlight than we usually would during the winter months.

The symptoms of SAD are similar to those experienced with non-seasonal depression – they include things such as low self-esteem, lethargy, sleep problems and feelings of anxiety – so it’s important that we take care of ourselves during the winter months to stop these symptoms from getting increasingly worse.

This is especially important in light of the rise in coronavirus cases, which means many of us will be unable to get out as much and see our friends and family – a situation which is only going to add to the low mood and anxiety we might already be feeling as a result of SAD. 

With this in mind, we asked Vandenabeele to share some of their top tips for managing seasonal affective disorder while working from home. Here’s what they had to say. 

Create a new routine

“Look at working from home positively: whilst you’re missing coffee breaks with your colleagues, you may have more flexibility to adapt working from home to suit your lifestyle needs,” Vandenabeele says. “Creating a routine may seem like a simple thing to do, but it can really help manage SAD.

“If the lack of daylight is affecting your mood, try to make the most of the hours when it’s light and get outside; even a cloudy day will provide your body with the light it’s craving.

“Whether it’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning before you switch on your work devices, or something you fit into your lunch break, wrap up warm and head outside. Why not block out time in your work calendar every day and go for a walk outdoors? Not only is it a refreshing break away from your digital devices, it can help improve a low mood.”

Brighten up your working space

“Aim to let in as much sunlight to your working environment as you can,” Vandenabeele recommends. “Open any curtains or blinds and sit by a window. You can also brighten up your working space through fresh flowers or plants, as research shows that flowers have a positive effect on our happiness.”

If you’re struggling to bring natural light into your workspace, using a daylight balanced light or therapeutic light box could help you to replicate the sunlight you’re missing. 

A desk with a plant
Working from home SAD: Adding plants or flowers to your desk is a great way to brighten up your working space.

Exercise outdoors

“If you’re able to exercise outside in natural daylight, it has a heap of health and wellbeing benefits,” Vandenabeele says.

“When you get active, your body releases mood-boosting hormones (endorphins) that can help reduce the symptoms of SAD and anxiety.

“Get outside and get moving if you’re feeling low; it might just help to take your mind off of things and boost your mood.”

Reach out to your loved ones

“Covid-19 shouldn’t stop you from catching up with your friends or family; instead, try to arrange regular catchups either over the phone, video call or in person,” Vandenabeele suggests. 

“You don’t have to do anything too complicated or overwhelming if you’re not feeling up to it, perhaps go for a socially distanced walk.

“Make sure your loved ones know how you’re feeling, so they can support you.”

Eat well

“What you eat can have surprising effects on how you feel, both mentally and physically,” Vandenabeele explains. “Eating a well-balanced diet can help you feel more energised; so, if you’re experiencing SAD, it’s important to make sure you’re still getting all the proper nutrients and vitamins into your body.

“You may be tempted to eat more sugary foods or carbohydrates but try to avoid temptation and reach out for a healthier snack, such as fresh fruit, instead. Foods rich in vitamin D and omega-3, such as oily fish, can help improve your mood.”

This probiotic-packed lentil and sweet potato jar recipe could be a good place to start if you’re looking for a mood-boosting meal. 

Baskets filled with fruit and vegetables
Working from home SAD: give your body a boost by giving it all the vitamins and minerals it needs to stay energised throughout the winter months.

Seek support

“If you’re feeling low, hopeless or you’re sleeping more than usual, you may be experiencing SAD,” Vandenabeele explains. “It’s really important to speak to your GP if you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms, as they’ll be able to help.

“Your doctor will ask you about your day-to-day life and your symptoms and will provide the right treatment for you. This may be self-help such as the lifestyle changes mentioned above, light therapy or CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).

“It’s a good idea to tell your family and friends that you have SAD and explain how it affects you, too, as they’ll be able to give you help and support when you need it, too.”

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

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