Winter blues can affect productivity

By PAULA BURKES ERICKSON
Monday, January 22, 2007

Scripps News

Feeling sluggish lately? Withdrawn? Eating more than usual?

Because of the shortened exposure to daylight, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or its milder form, the “winter blues.”

About 6 percent of Americans have SAD, and another 14 percent have the blues, according to Norman Rosenthal, author of “Winter Blues.” Symptoms begin in the fall and run through February.

Don’t laugh. SAD is a real physical illness with its own diagnosis. Employers should take it seriously, medical and workplace experts agree.

SAD is a subset of recurrent major depression and bipolar disease, or mood swings between depression and anger, said Jenny Boyer, a psychiatrist with Oklahoma University Physicians. Both are physical conditions, she said, that result from an access problem between the brain’s pituitary and hypothalamus glands.

About one in five Americans in their lifetime will suffer from depression, Boyer said. For two or more weeks, they’ll have fatigue, increased guilt, disinterest in their normal activities and increases, or less frequently decreases, in appetite and sleep.”I see people with SAD all the time,” Boyer said. “Patients will say ‘Doc, it’s winter. I always get this way in the winter.’ They’re kind of like bears hibernating. They’ll eat a whole bunch, sleep all the time and be super emotionally sensitive.”

Meanwhile, studies by the National Institutes of Health show depression costs the nation about $44 billion every year in lost work days, decreased productivity and other illnesses. Consequently, it’s important for employers to offer workers ways to cope _ from ample workplace lighting to employee assistance counseling programs to on-site fitness facilities.

People’s brains and behavior change with the shorter days and less daylight exposure, Boyer said. In the winter, people produce more melatonin, a depressive hormone that is made almost exclusively at night and to which SAD sufferers are more susceptible. In conjunction with behavioral counseling, SAD is treated with antidepressants, which are 45 percent effective; phototherapy, which is 70 percent effective; or electric shock therapy, which is 95 percent effective, Boyer said. Medication is the main choice for people who want a quick, convenient option and whose insurance does not pay for counseling or a $200 facial light box unit.

Robert Half International recommends employers position desks near windows or install sufficient ambient and task lighting. Office environment _ including lighting _ affects workers’ creativity, said 93 percent of executives in a recent RHI survey.

Meanwhile, winter blues sufferers might want to simply step up their exercise, said Chris DuRoy, a psychologist with the Oklahoma Heart Hospital.

“The jury is still out whether SAD results from reduced light exposure or reduced activity levels that follow the dark winter months,” DuRoy said.

Melissa Gruenewald, an accountant with Chesapeake Energy Corp., counters the winter blues by exercising 30 minutes or more, four times a week at her company’s on-site fitness center.

“I feel more tired this time of year,” Gruenewald, 31, said. “I don’t know if it’s the winter blues or working full-time and keeping up with my 18-month-old daughter. But working out makes me feel good and gives me more energy to get through the day.”

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