Too SAD to work?

Posted by Michelle Lawlor-Perkins on
During these Winter months, some employees are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Whilst some dismiss this as the "winter blues", for others it can be very debilitating. What is SAD and what are the important points employers need to be aware of?

What is SAD?

SAD is a type of depression and is sometimes referred to as "winter depression". This is because its symptoms tend to be more severe during the winter months and improve in the spring, before returning again in the winter. The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, although experts believe it is linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter months. 

What are the symptoms and how can SAD be treated?

The symptoms of SAD may include a persistent low mood, a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities and/or feeling lethargic. These symptoms are similar to those of "normal" depression. For some people, these symptoms can be severe and can have a significant impact on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends that SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression, including counselling and antidepressant medication.

Could SAD be a disability?

In short, SAD is potentially a disability. In accordance with UK law, for employees to be deemed as having a "disability", SAD must be a mental impairment that has a "substantial" and "long-term" negative effect on the individual's ability to do normal daily activities. "Substantial" is more than minor or trivial, for example it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a normal daily task. Such daily tasks could include washing and getting dressed, carrying out household tasks or taking part in social activities, which could apply to SAD sufferers. "Long-term" means lasting or likely to last for 12 months or more. Whilst at first blush it might seem that SAD sufferers would not satisfy the 12 months threshold given that most people's symptoms tend to improve during the warmer months, it is important to note that there are special rules regarding recurring conditions. This means that if an employee can show (usually through medical evidence) that the substantial adverse effect of the impairment is likely to recur on at least one occasion, then the employee may be held to be disabled, even if there is no immediate prospect of a recurrence of their condition. Further, not only are those with current disabilities protected from discrimination, so too are those who have had disabilities in the past. With this in mind, it is possible that where the effect of SAD is substantial, an employee could potentially be held to be disabled, even though the symptoms may only manifest themselves during winter months.

There are no reported cases of employees specifically bringing claims against employers in relation to SAD. However, given that it could potentially satisfy the legal definition of being a disability, employers should be mindful of how they treat employees who they know or suspect may be suffering with SAD. Failing to do so could result in expensive claims being brought, because compensation for discrimination is potentially unlimited and employees can bring this type of claim regardless of their length of service.

Practical steps for dealing with SAD employees

If you know or suspect your employee is suffering with SAD you should:

  • Discuss with your employee how they are feeling and coping.
  • Look for guidance on SAD and depression generally: ACAS and MIND are good resources.
  • If it is having a debilitating effect and impacting attendance, work, or workplace relationships, consider seeking your employee's consent to obtain a medical report from a doctor regarding their condition and prognosis. Bear in mind that incidents of misconduct could be connected to the condition.
  • If the doctor considers the employee's condition could be a disability, discuss with the employee what reasonable adjustments should be made, taking into account any recommendations by the doctor. This could include moving the employee to sit by a window, providing a special lamp called a light box that is used to simulate exposure to sunlight and/or assisting with the provision of counselling services. It is important to note that failing to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees to help them overcome a substantial disadvantage can give rise to claims.
  • Consider taking legal advice to minimise potential claims.

Taking such steps to support your employees through these "winter blues" will not only minimise the risk of potentially expensive legal claims, but can also boost staff's morale and productivity, come rain or shine.

This article was first published for CIPD's People Management online.

About the Authors

Michelle is a senior solicitor in the employment team who advises clients on a wide range of contentious and non-contentious issues.

Michelle Lawlor-Perkins
Email Michelle
020 7814 6906

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William is head of our Employment law team based in the Thames Valley. He provides immediate and commercially sensitive advice concerning all employment law issues.

William Downing
Email William
01865 254265

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