What is SAD?
SAD is defined by the NHS as "a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern." Most sufferers of SAD experience symptoms or more severe symptoms during the autumn and winter months. So as we leave summer behind and the daylight hours reduce, many who suffer from SAD will notice that symptoms are more apparent or increase in severity.
The symptoms of SAD are often similar to the symptoms of depression and, according to the NHS, can include a persistent low mood, feeling irritable or feeling stressed or anxious. In addition to potentially experiencing symptoms which are common to those who suffer from depression, other symptoms of SAD, according to the NHS, can consist of feeling lethargic and sleepy during the day, finding it hard to get up in the morning and having difficulty concentrating.
Many of the symptoms of SAD therefore could impact an employee's performance in work. For example, it may lead to an employee arriving late as a result of struggling to get up in the morning or making mistakes in their work through lack of concentration or tiredness.
SAD and the Equality Act 2010
If SAD has a substantial adverse effect on an employee's ability to carry out normal day to day activities and it has lasted for 12 months or is likely to last for at least 12 months then it will amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. The symptoms of SAD often reduce during spring and summer and it may be that during these periods it does not have a substantial adverse effect on the person's ability to carry out normal day to day activities. Nevertheless, a substantial adverse effect is deemed to continue under the Equality Act if it is likely to recur and this will be the case for many sufferers of SAD when the seasons change.
Employers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees who suffer from a disability and who are put at a substantial disadvantage by (1) a provision, criterion or practice of the employer; or (2) a physical feature of the employer's premises; or (3) a failure to provide an auxiliary aid. What may or may not be a reasonable adjustment in any case will depend upon the particular circumstances. In the case of an employee who suffers from SAD, this obligation could arise for example by the requirement that all employees are at their desks by 9am and a reasonable adjustment may be a later start time. Another reasonable adjustment for someone who suffers from SAD could be providing them with a seat next to a window, to allow them to enjoy more natural sunlight during the day.
The Equality Act also protects employees who suffer from a disability from being subjected to any discrimination arising from a disability. For an employee who suffers from SAD, this claim may arise if, for example, they are dismissed for persistent lateness where that lateness is as a result of them having SAD. One defence open to an employer in such a claim is that the dismissal was objectively justified. It will be more difficult though to be successful in this argument if the fact the employee suffers from SAD hasn't been taken into account and if reasonable adjustments haven't been considered.
What steps should employers be taking?
It's likely that for employees who suffer from SAD, any impact on their behaviour or work will occur in autumn or winter and will represent a shift from their previous behaviour or performance. Employers should be conscious of any sudden changes in an employee and before moving to discipline an employee or to performance manage them, it will normally be sensible to have an informal discussion with the employee during which the reason for the recent changes are explored. Following an informal discussion with the employee it may be appropriate (depending upon what the employee has told you) to obtain an occupational health report which can provide guidance on possible reasonable adjustments.
It's conceivable that an employee won't be aware that they suffer from SAD or won't reveal this to an employer during an informal discussion. An employer should though be live to an employee describing any symptoms which are akin to depression. In such circumstances, it may be appropriate to suggest to the employee that they visit their GP and that afterwards, you have a further discussion with the employee. Such conversations will though need to be managed sensitively.
The key point is that SAD should be treated by an employer in the same way as any other physical or mental condition from which an employee may be suffering and which may amount to a disability.
If you require any advice on how to manage employees who are suffering from SAD or any other potential disability, please get in touch and we would be happy to discuss this with you.