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Battling the Winter Blues

It doesn’t take much to make you feel blue: gray clouds hanging low in the sky or buzzing fluorescent lights casting a cold, clinical pallor. Often the weeks after Christmas become the start of a bleak and seemingly endless winter. You’re pensive and it’s hard to function at work and at home.

Man sitting at desk with a massive calendar and full of lamps

Managers see it. Productivity in the office starts to dip. The staff seems listless. People are missing work. 
Do you recognize it? It seems harder to get out of bed in the morning, and those activities that seemed enjoyable even a month ago now feel dull and tedious. 

This malaise can be widespread. An estimated 25 million Americans experience the winter blues while an additional 14 million people nationwide experience a more serious seasonal depression. 

John Matthews is vice president of information technology and chief information officer for F5 Networks, a tech firm in Seattle. He says there is a noticeable change in mood when winter starts.

“It’s dark in the morning when you get to work and dark when you get home,” he says.

Winter in the Pacific Northwest can be brutal, Matthews continues. It’s not particularly cold during those early months, but it’s always gray. He says the city can go weeks without seeing the sun. 

So his office fights back. Employees pull the blinds up on office windows and bring in lamps for extra light. This year Matthews had full-spectrum fluorescent lights installed. These lights emit more colors from the light spectrum than traditional fluorescents improving the mood and well-being of the employees when there’s little sunlight streaming in. 

After the holidays Matthews takes additional steps to brighten the mood. He’ll order in a hotdog cart to roll through the office or bring in a portable cocoa machine—something goofy or fun that gets employees’ attention and breaks up the winter monotony.

“Those things can be very positive,” he says. “Anything I can do to help is to my advantage as a manager.”

Scott Sears, a family practice physician and doctor of internal medicine in Billings, Montana, regularly sees the toll sunless days take on people. He commends Matthews and others who employ similar techniques. Light, he says, is the answer to winter doldrums. It’s a biological fact that sunlight makes people happy.

“Serotonin is the main hormone in the body that regulates these moods,” he says. “And light exposure increases your serotonin.”

When it’s dark, the body produces a hormone called melatonin, which helps regulate a person’s sleep-wake cycle. Long winter months and shorter days can impact melatonin levels in the body, so exposure to sunlight becomes that much more important, Sears adds.

When patients come in during the winter feeling blue, Sears tells them to seek light. Exercising regularly outdoors in natural light can cure a lot of ills, he says. If that’s not an option, exercise indoors under artificial light. 

He also tells patients to get a good night’s rest and to get out of the house and be social. Friends and co-workers play an important role in helping people stay mentally healthy by providing outlets for emotional expression, he says. In most cases, an afternoon outing with a friend is as good for mental health as anything he could prescribe. 

Russ Cherry believes giving assistance is vital. For him a manager’s job is to help employees find a meaningful connection to their work. Disruptions, especially those brought on by cold, dark weather, can cause all kinds of problems, he says. Managers need to understand how best to handle those disruptions.

“We’re creatures of habit. People like their rhythms, and seasonal changes disrupt their rhythms,” he explains.

Cherry is a business consultant and founder of Dream Big, an organization that works with companies to boost employee performance and strengthen the bottom line. For employees to be at their best, they have to tap into their jobs both intellectually and emotionally, he says. 

Most people have an intellectual connection with what they do at work; they understand their tasks and know what needs to get done. The problem, Cherry says, is fewer people have fostered emotional connections. Change the weather, set back the clock, and shorten the days, and all of a sudden that lack of an emotional connection can become a problem.

For example, someone who has spent his day running dozens of system analyses probably won’t go home at the end of the day feeling a deep emotional connection to his work and, by extension, the company. “That’s not life changing,” Cherry adds. 

Rather, he says, the employee needs to understand how what he does helps the company and its clients. A nurse, for example, can view his day as a series of menial tasks, or he can see that what he does allows a mother to feel healthy enough to receive a visit from her family. Cherry says, “Understanding your impact—that’s life changing.” 

A sales rep understands that her performance directly benefits the financial health of the company. But to help build a better emotional connection to work, she needs to understand that a healthy company will better execute its stated mission. That helps the sales rep feel more connected to the overall purpose of the company and helps her understand that what she does is important on various levels, Cherry says.

An emotional connection leaves employees feeling satisfied with what they do. That, in turn, has a positive impact on home life—especially during the winter—further helping the employee to feel good. When it’s time to go back to work, that employee is often better off than the day before. 

Employees who have that emotional connection are better prepared when the weather turns bad. Cherry says it’s the difference between simply performing tasks and understanding why they’re done. 
But sometimes winter blues are more than just feeling bummed because the thermometer hasn’t moved above freezing or because the sky is dull and dark.

Large calendar on desk sitting next to lamp

Profound feelings of depression that come on during the winter, lasting more than three months and returning each year, can be symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. It’s a serious condition that requires treatment, says Holly Willard, a licensed psychotherapist at Wasatch Family Therapy in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.

Be aware of how long feelings of sadness or depression persist and how constant they are, Willard says. Serious signs of the disorder include prolonged feelings of isolation, thoughts of suicide, increased sleeping and eating, irritability, and frequent crying.

A diagnosis of actual seasonal affective disorder typically happens when the symptoms recur over two or more winters.

Holidays are often the trigger. “There’s something of a letdown after the holidays,” Willard says. “And sometimes the holidays themselves are a source of stress and angst.”

According to Seattle Children’s Hospital, about 4 to 6 percent of Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder and another 20 percent report experiencing at least one or two of the symptoms during the winter. The disorder tends to strike more with older teenagers and adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. The disorder also tends to be more common in women—they’re four times more likely to experience it than men. 

Not surprisingly, the rates of diagnosis are higher in colder and darker states. About 1 percent of Floridians experience seasonal affective disorder while nearly 10 percent of those living in New Hampshire suffer from it.

To help, experts have offered a number of tips on how managers can recognize and reduce the winter blues in the office. There are also things employees can do to feel better and to keep productive during those long winter months.

Recognizing winter blues in your office 

1. DROPS IN PRODUCTIVITY. Work by individual employees slows down. Often there is a significant or sudden increase in office absenteeism and a noticeable drop in completed assignments. 

2. DECREASED MORALE. Winter blues bring noticeable drops in enthusiasm, camaraderie, and productivity among staff members. For some it can make tasks, assignments, or activities that once seemed enjoyable feel mundane or tedious.

3. HEIGHTENED IRRITABILITY. Feelings of depression are often expressed through increased irritability. An employee’s anger will begin to affect other co-workers or clients and interfere with assignments. 

4. FEELING HOPELESS. Employees may experience a general increase of feelings of apathy or hopelessness, which can lead to a withdrawal from social circles. They become disengaged from co-workers and managers and sit more in isolation. 

5. INCREASED APPETITE. Some find themselves eating more and seeking out foods high in carbohydrates, like sweets and salty snacks. Those foods become increasingly appealing because they trigger the pleasure centers of the brain, which often don’t get the stimulation they need during the winter. 

6. FATIGUE. Signs of winter blues also include increased sleepiness during the day and sleeping more at night. Feelings of fatigue make work harder to do and compound other symptoms of depression. 

7. GENERAL MOODINESS. Crying spells often increase and mercurial jumps and dips in mood will occur, adding to the loss of office morale and increasing the stress other employees may feel.

Man turning on lamp

Helping your employees 

1. PLAN OFFICE ACTIVITIES. Training and employee team-building exercises are usually built into the office calendar. Try leveraging those activities. As a way to break up a monotonous schedule, use Fridays as your day for group activities and office-wide training. When the training is finished, office-wide contests can be another way to motivate employees and help keep their spirits up. Provide daily updates to keep people excited about a competition or contest.

2. HOLD A WINTER OFFICE RETREAT. Plan your yearly office retreat during the winter. Waiting for late February or early March can help give your employees something to look forward to following the holidays. 

3. ENCOURAGE A BREAK. Sometimes just a day off or a long weekend is enough to help people feel refreshed and ready to focus on work again. So if you’ve got an employee who seems especially tired or strung out, give her a day away to go do something that will help get her reinvigorated. 

4. BE AN ATTENTIVE MANAGER. Pay attention to your staff. Good relationships fostered throughout the year will help you tackle issues that come up during the winter. Make sure lines of communication are open and clear.

5. WORK INDIVIDUALLY WITH EMPLOYEES. Address issues that come up individually with employees. Generally, that’s going to be more effective than instituting an office-wide approach. If serious performance issues arise, you may need to implement more personalized support, which could include changing an employee’s tasks.

6. INVOLVE THE HR MANAGER. Should an employee’s winter blues coalesce into actual seasonal affective disorder, you’ll want to make sure—for legal and productivity reasons—that you’ve documented it with your HR manager and kept your interactions with that employee confidential. You want to be forthright and direct as well as sympathetic and understanding when dealing with these issues. 

7. AVOID GIMMICKS. A brightly colored, well-intentioned gimmick can put off employees. Office decorations or snappy slogans used to address general office malaise in the winter aren’t as effective as personalized leadership and one-on-one direction for those who need extra help.

Man sun tanning at desk

Helping yourself 

1. EXERCISE. Few activities will do more to improve mood than regular exercise. If running around the neighborhood isn’t an option because of weather or location, find a gym. Join a basketball, volleyball, or even dodgeball league. Take up lap swimming. Pilates or yoga can be especially helpful. Exercise coupled with some type of meditation or meditative process is good for the body and for your brain.

2. GET LIGHT. The body needs sunlight. It helps produce vitamin D and serotonin and affects the amount of melatonin in the body, all of which affect mood and levels of happiness. If your desk or cubicle is in the middle of the office, work with your boss to have it moved closer to a window. If being next to an office window isn’t an option, use a sunlamp. Light therapy or phototherapy is an easy way to introduce sunlight into your day. Sunlamps are relatively inexpensive, are available at most stores, and can be set up at home or on your desk. 

3. EAT SMART. Maintaining a good diet is important year-round, but it’s critical during the winter. A good diet improves your mood and increases your energy levels. Stay away from extra fats and carbohydrates, and eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and proteins. 

4. VACATION IN A SUNNY LOCALE. Rather than use all your paid time off around Christmas or New Year’s, plan a vacation somewhere warm and sunny for February or March. It gets you out of the cold and dark and gives you something more to look forward to following the holidays.

5. BE SOCIAL. Bulk up your post-holiday calendar with get-togethers or outings. Plan simple activities like a lunch date with an old friend or a night out at a new restaurant with your spouse.

6. KEEP YOUR ROUTINE. If you’re starting to feel blue and it gets hard to function, make sure you’ve got a daily routine that requires you to be up and around doing various activities, including getting yourself to work. A regular routine can keep you moving when it’s hard to function or find motivation.

7. GET HELP. Sometimes sunlamps and swimming laps aren’t enough. If feeling blue becomes serious and stretches into a third month, it’s time to talk to someone. 


Article written by Rob Rogers
Photographed by Bradley Slade

About the Author 
Rob Rogers is a reporter with the Billings Gazette in Montana. He graduated from BYU in 2001 with a degree in communications.

Sources: Dr. John B. Bingham, associate professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership and Strategy at the Marriott School of Management, Brigham Young University; Holly Willard, LCSW psychotherapist at Wasatch Family Therapy; Russ Cherry, CEO of Dream Big Consulting; John Matthews, vice president of information technology and chief information officer of F5 Networks; Scott Sears, MD, Yellowstone Medical Center; U. S. Bureau of Labor.

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