‘Winter blues’ could be a disability requiring reasonable adjustments

March 9, 2016

‘Winter blues’ could be a disability requiring reasonable adjustments

Checklist for dealing with seasonal affective disorder

During these dark winter months, some employees can be affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD). While some dismiss this as simply the ‘winter blues’, for others it can be very debilitating.

SAD is a type of depression whose symptoms tend to be more severe during the winter and improve in the spring. Its exact cause is not fully understood, although the mental impairment is believed to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the darker months. Its symptoms, which can be severe, are similar to other forms of depression: persistent low mood, loss of interest in everyday activities and feeling lethargic. Incidents of misconduct could be connected to the condition, such as employees failing to complete work, lateness, unauthorised absences or perhaps unacceptable behaviour with other colleagues.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends that SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression; treatment can include talk therapy and antidepressant medication.

The condition can be a disability under UK law if it has a substantial and long-term negative effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal daily activities, such as washing and getting dressed, performing household tasks or taking part in social activities. ‘Substantial’ means more than minor or trivial, for example, taking much longer than usual to complete a normal daily task. ‘Long-term’ means lasting, or likely to last, for 12 months or more.

It might seem that SAD sufferers would not satisfy this 12 month threshold given that symptoms tend to improve during the lighter months, but there are special rules regarding recurring conditions. 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 he or she may be held to be disabled, even if there is no immediate prospect of the condition recurring. And the law protects not only those with current disabilities from discrimination, but those who have had disabilities in the past too. So it is possible that where the effects of SAD are substantial, an employee could potentially be held to be disabled, even though the symptoms may only manifest themselves during the winter.

If an employee is disabled, the employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments. For SAD, this could include moving the employee to sit by a window, providing a special lamp called a light box used to simulate exposure to sunlight and/or assisting with the provision of counselling services.

There are no reported cases of employees bringing claims against employers specifically in relation to SAD but employers should remember that it could potentially be a disability when dealing with employees who may be suffering from the condition. Failing to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees to help them overcome a substantial disadvantage can give rise to expensive claims, as compensation for discrimination is potentially unlimited and employees can bring this type of claim regardless of their length of service.

There are practical steps that employers can take if they know or suspect an employee is suffering with SAD, which can help to support the employee, minimise the risk of claims, boost staff morale and increase productivity. They can:

  • Look for guidance on SAD and depression generally, and how to deal with disability in the workplace (MIND and Acas are good sources)
  • Discuss with the employee how he or she is feeling and coping
  • Consider seeking the employee’s consent to obtaining a medical report on his or her condition (and prognosis) if it is having a debilitating effect and affecting attendance, work, or workplace relationships
  • Discuss with the employee what reasonable adjustments could be made if a doctor considers the employee’s condition could be a disability, taking into account any recommendations by the doctor

This post is in: Employee Relations Blogs

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