Could your low mood be seasonal affective disorder?

Many experiencing SAD in winter feel more tired, have greater appetite and less energy

The HSE estimates about 7 per cent of Irish people experience seasonal affective disorder. Photograph: iStock

Dark nights and a sudden change in weather can make these winter days bleaker and longer than we’d like. The hazy sunshine which builds our vitamin D stores is hard to find on this island in the depths of winter. Icy storms hit, prompting us to keep indoors to escape shivering in our boots.

While winter and these cold days can culminate in cosy gatherings around the fire, it can also bring a lethargy and change in mood which can have a significant impact on your mental health and daily life. It can certainly get you down.

Some more so than others.

Tadhg Doyle is an executive assistant to a chief executive. His job requires detail and precision with a level head for multitasking. Over the past five years, he has recognised a change in his mood during the winter months making his work life problematic. He finds the darker days difficult. "It was three years ago when a friend mentioned SAD [seasonal affective disorder] to me that I realised this must be why I get irritable, angry and forgetful until the days start to get a bit lighter and longer. I didn't know what to do about it and thought it was just who I was."



The Health Service Executive (HSE) estimates about 7 per cent of the population experience SAD, a mood disorder ordinarily experienced in winter but also affecting people during the summer months. Many experiencing SAD in the winter feel more tired than usual with a fatigue they can’t explain, a greater appetite often resulting in weight gain, less energy and a desire to be alone.

"Seasonal affective disorder is said to affect women more than men with symptoms of depression presenting as mild to major blockers to normal daily functioning," psychologist Allison Keating says.

Scientists are unsure as to why we experience SAD with the suggestion that a change in our hormones due to the lack of light available in the winter months is a probable cause. Less light results in our brains creating lower levels of serotonin, the happy hormone linked to regulating our mood.

As the symptoms of SAD deepened, Tadhg noticed his behaviour was affecting not only his personal life but also his work life. “I called in sick more often for nothing more than feeling low and tired. I really like my job and I’m good at it but I didn’t have the same drive to keep me going until the end of the day and I couldn’t be bothered meeting up with friends and colleagues. The chief executive started to notice how irritable I was and pretty much told me to leave the attitude at home. Even I knew my behaviour was out of the norm but the more I was pushed, the more alone and desperate I felt.”


Aine Crilly is a human resources consultant with the HR Elephant. She says: "It's really important to highlight that SAD is recognised as a genuine condition and employers should take the impact and support required for employees seriously. Employers and line managers have a duty of care in the workplace and equally as we work from home these days. So when employees are wondering how or when to approach employers, it's key to remember reporting suffering from SAD is no different than reporting a physical health problem."

Considering the stigma surrounding SAD and mental health in general, how can we feel confident to discuss our issues with our employer when we are suffering from SAD? “There is no other way than just being direct about it,” says Keating. “To stop mental health stigma, we need to get the necessary help required minus our own or others’ judgment. Taking mental health out of the darkness reduces shame and the only way through this is to practise it.”

When approaching the conversation of mental health in any context, it’s important we feel supported by our peers and our employers. “It’s going to be an uncomfortable conversation,” says Keating, “but saying nothing will be more uncomfortable. Take a deep breath and state clearly what is going on. This may help as your employer may have noticed a low mood and lack of concentration from you and may have misinterpreted what was going on.”

Crilly reminds us that sometimes it may be easier to pick up the phone or send an email if a socially distanced face-to-face chat is too difficult or not appropriate. “Also remember employers, managers, supervisors are all human too and care about employees,” she says. “Divulging your health conditions could result in having a more supportive work environment and, for example, a flexible-working option.”


The conversation for Tadhg was started by a colleague who recognised the symptoms he was going through last year. A wellness-at-work programme was organised for all employees as part of the company’s wellness policy and Tadhg was given the opportunity to discuss his concerns with the chief executive who actively supported him. “SAD still affects me,” he says, “but I am able to manage it now. It helps to know I have the support from my company.”

There are many ways an employer can support their employees to maintain a healthy balance for all concerned during the winter months when SAD is more prominent. Keating advises on simple measures which can be put in place. “Perhaps open different ways to offer a supportive culture to talk about different topics. Offering a light box at desks has been known to alleviate symptoms of SAD. Encouraging time away from the desk at lunch and a quick walk outside in the natural daylight or supporting flexible-work options. Finally, promoting the use of an employee assistance programme or external counselling will provide support to those who need it.”

In these difficult days of many of us working from home with less contact with our colleagues, it is especially important to support each other as the winter months take hold.

If you notice the following symptoms occurring for more than two weeks or appearing cyclically (such as appearing in winter and easing in spring), you may be experiencing SAD. Speak to those closest to you and to your general practitioner who will recommend the most suitable treatment.

– Quick to anger or feelings of anxiety.
– Avoiding social gatherings or a lack of interest in what you usually enjoy.
– Trouble concentrating and feeling sensitive, irritable or having low mood.
– Lethargy, exhaustion or oversleeping.
– Overeating and weight gain.

Samaritans: phone 116 123, text 087 2609090, email
Aware: phone 1800 804848, email