Christmas has been and gone, there’s a hole in my bank account, a few extra pounds around my middle and I’ve failed to keep any of my New Year’s resolutions. It’s dark when I wake up in the morning and when I come home from work at night. I feel gloomy and lethargic and the cold weather is making it even harder to get out of bed than usual. Like most people, I put all this down to a bad case of January blues. Is it a disability? Of course not. I just prefer the summer. But what if your employee feels that his winter woes are in fact Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depressive illness occurring most commonly in winter months. Since being brought to the attention of medical professionals in the 1980s, the condition (appropriately shortened to “SAD”) is estimated to affect 8% of the population. Although the causes are unknown, SAD may be related to changes in the amount of daylight during the autumn and winter months. One theory is that light stimulates a part of the brain called the hypothalamus which controls mood, appetite and sleep. In people with SAD, lack of light and an imbalance in certain brain chemicals and hormones may prevent the hypothalamus from working properly.

The symptoms of SAD include overeating, oversleeping, low mood and indifference towards social activities, i.e. not dissimilar to the feelings many of us have at this time of year. [“Low mood” is apparently the new medical shorthand for depression – which we know can be a disability – adopted because a formal diagnosis of depression (e.g. on a doctor’s note) can have later ramifications for the employee in life or loan insurance terms].  Serious cases can also lead to diminished sex drive, weakened concentration and suicide.  So where does that leave employers? Could a person suffering from SAD be deemed disabled under the Equality Act 2010 and therefore qualify for additional protection under employment law? Albeit at the risk of sending the Daily Mail into a frenzy, the answer is yes, in theory he could.

To establish protection under the Act, employees need to demonstrate that the condition has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities. In its most severe form, SAD can make it difficult for the sufferer to function during winter months (i.e. the effect is “substantial”). In terms of duration, the seasonal effect will not prevent it being “long term” for the purposes of the Act, providing it is prone to recurrence. 

Assuming the employee is disabled, what is a reasonable adjustment for a person who needs more daylight hours?  Although there is nothing an employer can do to change the dreary UK climate, there are still adjustments which it could make to improve working conditions for SAD sufferers. These could include allowing the employee to take regular breaks outside, seating the employee near a window and encouraging the employee to undertake ‘light therapy’. If the employee’s absence rates are significantly higher during the winter than during the summer, one reasonable adjustment might be to adapt absence management policies to ensure the employee does not suffer a disadvantage as a result.  Whether SAD is a disability in any given case is open to question but that it is a genuine illness is not.  The sensible employer will therefore not require the complaint to be a statutory disability as a pre-condition of helping the employee deal with it. 

There is no doubt that a serious case of SAD is a disabling condition for those who genuinely suffer from it, but this is an area that is open to abuse by staff who might be perfectly healthy and simply want the benefit of a few more ‘duvet days’ in the winter. Employers should be equally wary of the employee who suggests a relocation to California on medical grounds.  Join the queue!