Seasonal sadness in workplace legitimate cause for concern | Courtney Mulqueen

By Courtney Mulqueen ·

Law360 Canada (January 30, 2024, 11:01 AM EST) --
Courtney Mulqueen
Courtney Mulqueen
Most of us will get the blues at this time of year. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is not that.

SAD is actual clinical depression. However, recognizing and treating this ailment can be present problems.

Researchers say there is no clear cause of SAD although shorter days and less sunlight are believed to be linked to a chemical change in the brain that may trigger depression. It can impact memory, concentration, and focus and may affect relationships while also impairing a person’s ability to work.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) states the signs and symptoms of SAD are the same as the list for major depression and can appear and disappear at about the same time each year.

The major symptom is an unhappy, despairing mood, according to CAMH, with a feeling that is present most days and lasting for more than two weeks.

It seems to mainly affect women and young people are also more likely to develop seasonal affective disorder.

According to CAMH, symptoms may include:

  • changes in appetite and weight;
  • difficulty sleeping;
  • loss of interest in work, hobbies, people or sex;
  • withdrawal from family and friends;
  • a feeling of uselessness, hopelessness, excessive guilt, pessimism or low self-esteem;
  • agitation or feeling slowed down;
  • irritability;
  • fatigue;
  • trouble concentrating, remembering and making decisions;
  • crying or feeling like crying but not being able to;
  • thoughts of suicide; and
  • a loss of touch with reality, hearing voices or having delusional thoughts.

People may withdraw socially and have an increased sensitivity to rejection, studies indicate.

They may also suffer from physical problems, such as headaches.

It is believed changes in light may upset a person’s biological clock, which controls sleep-wake patterns and disturb neurotransmitter functions.

“SAD may be like a form of jet lag, where there's a disconnect between the internal clock and the external environment,” Dr. Raymond Lam tells CBC news. "Light is the strongest synchronizer of that biological clock.

“These are people who have clinical depressions but only during the wintertime,” adds the professor of psychiatry, who has spent decades researching seasonal depression. “By spring and summer, they are actually feeling better – and in the summertime they're feeling well.”

The Canadian Psychological Association states 15 per cent of Canadians will report at least a mild case of SAD in their lifetime, while two to three per cent will suffer serious cases.

The third Monday of January has for years been recognized as Blue Monday, the day when happiness levels are at their lowest.

However, there is no scientific basis to Blue Monday. It began as a marketing ploy to sell vacation packages in Britain.

It has been reported the concept was introduced in 2004 when a travel company asked a psychologist to come up with a formula for the January blues.

That formula took into consideration weather, debt, monthly salary, time since Christmas, time since failing New Year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and the feeling of a need to take action. The psychologist himself called the formula pseudoscience and urged people to “refute the whole notion” of Blue Monday.

Still, the term is trotted out each January and it tends to minimize the suffering of those who experience SAD.

Seasonal affective disorder is another example of an invisible disability that is difficult to diagnose. Sufferers really do have to rely on a doctor to help them in assessing this ailment.

They may even have to advocate for themselves.

One problem is that people may not realize the extent of their condition.

Some may ignore it, believing they are feeling low because it is just cold and overcast outside. However, if it is affecting a person’s functioning and their ability to do their job, they need to seek help.

This winter may be especially difficult for those experiencing SAD in the Greater Toronto Area.

Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips told CTV News it has been an uncharacteristically dreary winter with more overcast days than we would normally experience.

He said in winter, Toronto typically sees between 190 to 200 hours of clear skies by mid-January.

“All we’ve had is 30,” he told CTV. “It’s almost like the sun doesn’t appear anymore. It’s almost like a Vancouver kind of a winter.”

Even from speaking to my clients, people seem a little bit sadder than normal and everyone comments on the gloomy weather.

For those suffering from an underlying condition such as chronic pain, SAD, like any mental health issue, can be an aggravating factor and have a “trickle-down effect” on their health.

Those who believe they may be depressed should not ignore the problem since the issue can linger. Doctors agree that early diagnosis and treatment is key to recovery.

Treatment can include exposure to sunlight, such as spending time outside or near a window. Indoor light therapy may help as well as antidepressants to correct any chemical imbalances. Psychotherapy can also be effective, studies show.

Like any illness, it is important to be proactive when seeking help if you plan to file a claim for short or long-term disability.

You should consult with your doctor since without a diagnosis and proper treatment, an insurance company is likely to deny your claim.

Like any mental health issue, it can be a mistake to make assumptions which is why it is important to seek advice.

Courtney Mulqueen, of Mulqueen Disability Law, has over 20 years experience litigating disability claims. Her focus and passion is representing disabled plaintiffs who suffer with complex “invisible conditions” like mental health and chronic conditions that are difficult to prove, diagnose and treat.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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