Physician, Heal Thyself: When Healthcare Providers Suffer From Seasonal Affective Disorder

Physician, Heal Thyself: When Healthcare Providers Suffer From Seasonal Affective Disorder
seasonal affective disorder

As winter approaches in the northern hemisphere, a significant number of people will develop symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that affects people primarily throughout the fall and winter, although it can also affect people in spring and summer.

The causes of seasonal affective disorder are not fully understood. The consensus is that low overall light levels from shorter days and longer nights seem to trigger this type of depression. Lack of sunlight is a key factor in triggering seasonal affective disorder by its effect on circadian rhythms and production of mood-affecting neurotransmitters.1

Impact on Healthcare Providers

Seasonal affective disorder affects healthcare providers in two principal ways. Firstly, providers may see an increase in the number of patients reporting symptoms of depression in late fall and throughout winter. Secondly, a provider or some of the provider’s staff may suffer from the condition.

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can range from mild to fairly severe. People who experience symptoms should seek professional help. Even those who only suffer from relatively mild symptoms can see their ability to make positive contributions at work decline. This can negatively impact the level of care and attention offered by healthcare providers.

Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

The treatment for seasonal affective disorder is similar to treatment for other types of depression. Doctors will normally investigate whether the symptoms may be due to a physical disorder. Tests may include a mental health assessment and blood analysis. Standard treatment for the condition may include prescribing anti-depressants, recommending light therapy or offering cognitive behavioral therapy.

Workplace Environment Factors

Making changes in the work environment can go some way toward alleviating the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Increasing the amount of natural light in the workplace can be a big help. Doing so may be simply a matter of replacing heavy curtains with lighter ones, or perhaps replacing blinds with semi-opaque glass covers. These will allow natural light through without compromising privacy.

Where it is not possible to increase natural light, consider replacing standard artificial lighting with daylight bulbs. These reproduce the quality of light and the spectrum of natural daylight.

Light therapy is one type of treatment that may help people with seasonal affective disorder.2 People experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder sit close to a box that produces high-intensity, filtered light for 15-30 minutes each day. Keeping a light box on or near your desk can be beneficial, and providing a light box for staff can also be helpful. Consider installing one or more light boxes in the employee common areas or creating a workstation with a lightbox that employees can share as needed.

Making the workplace as bright and airy as possible is another way to offset the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Replace dark paint or wall coverings with bright, sunny colors. While it is important to keep temperatures high enough to be comfortable, the workplace should not be stuffy and uncomfortable from having the thermostat set too high.