Accommodating Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Dec 21, 2009
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​As seasons shift and daylight hours decrease, many people find it harder to get out of bed in the morning. But for those diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), an extreme form of common seasonal mood cycles that can be associated with depression, too much darkness can have a debilitating effect. Accommodations can help.

According to the National Mental Health Association (NMHA), SAD affects 10 million Americans, mostly women in their 20s.

The Mayo Clinic’s web site indicates that SAD symptoms which are associated with the onset of winter include:

  • Depression
  • Hopelessness
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of energy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Oversleeping
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating and processing information

And for some individuals the onset of spring can trigger other—sometimes opposite—symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, irritability and weight loss.

Most experts attribute SAD to an imbalance of two chemicals in the brain, melatonin and serotonin, due to less sunlight available during the winter months. Light therapy is one of several recommended therapies.

"We have learned in the past five years that it's the presence and intensity of light in the blue region of the visible spectrum that suppresses our body's daytime production of melatonin, and helps regulate our internal clock known as our circadian rhythm, which signals the body to fall asleep and wake up at proper times," said Neall Digert, Ph.D., who has studied human psychological perceptions in various luminous environments. "Studies show that abnormalities in the level of melatonin, a hormone that our bodies suppress in response to light, have a direct impact on the circadian rhythm and sleep patterns and are linked to SAD,” he said in a Nov. 25, 2009 statement.

Accommodation Options

According to the web site of the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, “Treatment for SAD usually involves non-sedative selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs such as Zoloft, Ludtral, and Prozac, members of the family of drugs used to treat people with depression, combined with light therapy.

“Light therapy is exposure to high intensity bright lights, typically referred to as light or sun boxes. An individual spends a period of time each day exposed to this light, and treatment can last from 30 minutes to 2 hours per day,” the JAN site states. “Many of these light boxes are portable and can be placed on a desk or table in the work environment.”

Other accommodations JAN suggests include:

  • Relocating the employee's workspace to an area with an increased exposure to daylight.
  • Permitting the employee extended breaks outside.
  • Modifying the employee's schedule and shift arrangements.
  • Permitting an employee to take leave for treatment.

Avoiding Legal Risk

As SHRM previously reported, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in October 2009 that a school district had violated the ADA by not accommodating a teacher with SAD who was transferred to an interior classroom lacking natural light. The court said the school district had to provide the requested accommodation—transfer to a classroom with natural light—unless the transfer would impose an undue hardship, which the evidence did not support.

“Before brushing off an employee who complains of SAD as one who is just disappointed to see the end of summer, employers should consider whether the employee with SAD has a disability protected by law,” said Susan K. Lessack, a labor and employment law attorney with Pepper Hamilton LLP, in a Nov. 18, 2009 statement. “If an employee with SAD has depression and, as a result, is substantially impaired, the employee is entitled to protection from discrimination, and may also be entitled to a reasonable accommodation if he or she needs one to perform the essential functions of the job.”

Lesack noted that mitigating measures taken to alleviate the employee’s condition, such as medication, psychotherapy or other treatment, are not considered in determining whether the employee has a disability.

Moreover, Lessack said that an employee with SAD might be deemed to have a serious health condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act, thus triggering possible eligibility for up to 12 weeks of leave for treatment and doctors’ appointments.

“If an employee advises an employer that he or she is suffering from SAD and needs a reasonable accommodation and/or an FMLA leave, the employer should take the employee's request seriously,” she said. “Further, an employer cannot discriminate or retaliate against an employee who requires FMLA leave due to SAD.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Article:

7th Circuit: Sunlit Classroom May Have Been Required Accommodation, SHRM Online Legal Issues Page, Oct. 9, 2009
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