As the weather continues to get colder and the days get darker, some people may notice that they feel more tired, experience weight gain, or struggle to get out of bed in the morning. For most, these symptoms begin in the fall, peak in the winter and resolve in the spring. Although the majority of people who experience these symptoms have nothing more than the “winter blues,” others suffer from a potentially debilitating condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is an extreme form of common seasonal mood cycles that can be associated with mild, moderate or severe depression. The condition is often, but not always, triggered by the changing of the seasons; some individuals who work long hours inside office buildings with few windows may experience symptoms all year round.

Some of the symptoms associated with SAD include depression, mood swings, severe lack of energy, increased need for sleep, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, sadness and, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts. The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but most experts attribute the condition to an imbalance of two chemicals in the brain, melatonin and serotonin. With longer periods of darkness during the winter months, levels of melatonin may increase and levels of serotonin may decrease. This imbalance can create the biological conditions that lead to depression.1

Employers may have an employee with SAD in their workplaces. Before brushing off an employee who complains of SAD as one who is just disappointed to see the end of summer, employers should consider whether the employee with SAD has a disability protected by law.

Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Americans with Disabilities Act

If an employee with SAD has symptoms of depression or another medical condition, he/she may be disabled under the ADA (and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act).2 To be disabled under those statutes, an employee must be substantially limited in performing a major life activity, as compared to most people in the general population. If an employee with SAD has depression and, as a result, is substantially impaired in a major life activity, the employee is entitled to protection from discrimination and may also be entitled to a reasonable accommodation if he/she needs one to perform the essential functions of the job. That means that an employer should take seriously an employee’s request for assistance to deal with his/her SAD in the workplace. As with any disability, an employer is required to engage in an interactive process with an employee who makes known a need for reasonable accommodation to try to arrive at a solution that will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job without causing an undue hardship for the employer.

The issues arising from SAD in the workplace are well-illustrated in a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which reversed summary judgment in favor of a school district on a claim that the district had violated the ADA by not accommodating a teacher with SAD.3 After the teacher was transferred to a classroom with no exterior windows, she requested an accommodation of moving to a classroom with natural light. The school district refused. The Seventh Circuit held that the school district was obligated to provide the requested accommodation to the teacher, unless the transfer would impose an undue hardship, which the evidence did not support.

Depending on the severity of the employee’s SAD, possible accommodations may include:

  • allowing a light box to be placed in the employee’s office;
  • relocating the employee’s workspace to an area with an increased flow of daylight (i.e., near a window);
  • permitting the employee to spend a portion of each day outside (extended breaks, walks, etc.);
  • modifying the employee’s schedule and shift arrangements; and/or
  • permitting an employee to take leave for treatment.

Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Family and Medical Leave Act

An employee with SAD also may be entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Depression is a condition which, under certain circumstances, may constitute a serious health condition under the FMLA.4 If the employee’s SAD constitutes a serious health condition, he or she would be entitled to up to 12 weeks of leave for treatment, doctors’ appointments and the like. Further, an employer cannot discriminate or retaliate against an employee who requires FMLA leave due to his/her SAD.

Bottom Line – Take SAD Seriously

Depending on how it affects an individual employee, SAD may be a medical condition covered by the ADA and/or the FMLA. If it is, employers must comply with those laws. If an employee advises an employer that he/she is suffering from SAD and needs a reasonable accommodation, the employer should engage in the typical interactive process to determine if there is an accommodation that would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his/her job and that would not present an undue hardship to the employer. If an employee requests a leave under the FMLA related to a diagnosis of SAD, the employer should treat that request as it would other requests for FMLA leave and afford the leave if the employee’s physician certifies that it is a serious health condition under the FMLA.

A version of this article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of The HR Specialist. It is reprinted here with permission.