How to talk to your employer about your seasonal affective disorder

Time to talk to someone about it.
Time to talk to someone about it.
Image: Reuters/Ilya Naymushin
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For nearly a decade, Mary, a 35-year-old client of mine, was identified as a rising star for eight months of the year. But in the winter, her mood and energy would nose-dive, shattering her productivity statistics and making it look as if she didn’t really have what it takes to rise to the top.

Mary was struggling with seasonal affective disorder and didn’t know how to address it. She knew that the winter-time depression, sleepiness, weight gain, lack of interest, fatigue, guilt, and even temporary suicidal ideation—which can even carry over into spring—were not her usual self.

Some people might not believe that SAD is real, but it is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a subtype of depression. Up to 2.4% of the general population is affected by SAD, which makes up an estimated 10% to 20% of recurrent depressions. Like many people with SAD, Mary tried to push through, without much success.

Mary was worried that her team and employer would look down on her and see her as “weak,” so she tried to forge ahead. Still, year after year, this pattern returned.

When people have SAD, brain regions that respond to emotion, voluntary and planned movement, executive function, and memory are all affected. To say the least, this can greatly impede productivity at work. In the course of our work, she eventually realized that she needed to address this.

How to talk to your boss about SAD

Mary and I talked about how she might communicate to her team about her depression while she began treatment (starting on an antidepressant and cognitive behavioral therapy). When she was comfortable, she spoke up at a team meeting to inform her colleagues about her condition. “My body’s serotonin and melatonin don’t work correctly in the winter,” she said. “My biological clock gets wonky, and my brain follows suit.” She told them she was going to address this and make the necessary adjustments so that she could get back on track. Her team applauded her.

Of course, not everyone’s workplace is as accepting of mental health concerns. But don’t be afraid to talk to colleagues who will be supportive of your efforts to improve your mental health, or who might be going through the same thing themselves. (Workers in the US should take special note: The Americans With Disabilities Act protects you against discrimination.)

Encourage your colleagues to speak about mental health challenges at work, too, so it’s a part of the company’s culture and not taboo.

Here’s how to start the discussion

1. Prior to speaking to anyone at work, ensure you’ve had a thorough assessment for your worsening depression. Sometimes, the symptoms of depression and/or SAD can mask underlying illnesses. Be sure to consult with your primary care provider or a psychiatrist. Once you have done this, you can have the confidence of a diagnosis to rely on when speaking to your boss.

2. Ask to meet your boss in a private space, such as in his or her office. Do not accept having this conversation in public, no matter how rushed he or she is. If you have a team like Mary’s and you feel comfortable sharing with your peers, by all means do so when it feels safe.

3. Start the conversation by recounting your strengths and achievements. Then, say that you wondered why your performance dropped despite your best intentions.

4. Following this, tell your boss that you have spoken with your doctor about SAD, a biological abnormality in serotonin and melatonin that manifests in the winter months. Point out that you realized that addressing this was better than hiding at home using sick days or showing up to work disengaged. If you had the flu, you’d let people know. So why not let them know about your SAD?

5. Be honest with your boss about how you feel. If you’re anxious about talking about this, say that you’re anxious. Often, putting feelings into words will quiet your nervous brain.

6. Assert that you might need some temporary accommodations while you recover. You should express your absolute dedication to well-being, but remind your boss that the recovery period is different for each person. Ask for different deadlines if you need them, or consider adjusting your work schedule so that it feels more manageable—and plan to add more as your recovery progresses. It can also be helpful to be near light or use a light box, so see whether your workspace can be moved closer to a window during the winter months. Arrange check-ins with your boss from time to time to review your productivity and recovery.

If you are suffering from SAD, remember that it is a formally recognized, diagnosable disorder. Even though SAD is seasonal, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. After talking to your doctor, speak with your boss about what practical steps can be taken to aid in your recovery.

Srini Pillay, MD, is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and the author of numerous books including Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind; Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear; and Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders. He also serves as a part-time assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School.