When Emilie Aries was working as the Rhode Island state director for Organizing for America about six years ago, she experienced a period of fatigue, lack of motivation and a decrease in productivity. She felt fortunate to have a job she loved, but she felt like she was working around the clock and could never complete everything on her to-do list.
At first, she shrugged the feelings off as the winter blues due to the cold, sunlight-scarce days in the Northeast. She continued to trudge along until her burnout became all-encompassing. “One day it just hit me. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m exhausted. I’m tired of feeling so tired,’” Aries, 31, recounted. “I felt like I was martyr to my own career, and I knew the way I was working wasn’t working for a sustainable path forward.”
This burnout, which started as the simple winter blues, eventually led Aries to quit her job and move to Washington, D.C. for a new career opportunity. While Aries’ case is extreme, it's not uncommon for people to find themselves with a mild and short-term case of the winter blues, which is when people find themselves feeling a bit down, tired or less productive due to the shorter and colder days.
Some people might feel down about stressful holidays or the absence of loved ones, while others might feel disappointment over the festivities ending. The winter blues, which is a general condition and not a medical diagnosis, can bring on symptoms that range from fatigue and a lack of motivation to a decrease in self-confidence and a sense of loneliness.
“The winter blues are real,” said James Campbell Quick, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “We feel somewhat down, and it’s a result of a combination of seasonal factors like cold, rainy, cloudy or snowy days. We’re also not outdoors as much and this becomes a drain on our energy levels.”
A more serious condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a well-defined clinical diagnosis linked to the shortening of daylight hours. It affects about 5 percent of Americans and is more common among women than men. This form of depression follows a regular pattern, starting around the fall or winter and ending a few months later. It can lead to feelings of hopelessness and irritability and a desire to withdraw. If you suspect you’re dealing with SAD, reach out to your primary care provider or psychologist for professional advice.
Whether you’re experiencing a mild case of the winter blues or something that’s potentially more serious, there are a number of simple things you can incorporate into your work day to help combat feelings of despair.
Name your feelings
“When you’re feeling down, burned out or disengaged, name it,” said Aries, who is now the founder of a national network called Bossed Up, based in Denver and most active in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles , which provides seminars, podcasts, online courses and workshops centered around building a sustainable career. “Acknowledge that it’s real and tell someone about it, whether in the form of a professional therapist or a friend.” She added, “Just naming it could detach it from your own identity in a way that helps you tackle it in a proactive way.”
Resist the urge to hibernate
“Loneliness is one of the biggest contributors to burnout, and there’s no substitute for face time with the people you care about,” Aries said. She believes that resisting the urge to hibernate by dragging yourself to the local pub for trivia night or meeting a friend for dinner could help combat the winter blues.
Quick uses a unique approach by filling up his calendar with what he calls Ds (which stand for "drain") and Fs (which stand for "fill me up"). “The Ds are the people and events that tend to drain my energy, and the Fs are the people and events that bring me joy and excitement and fill me up,” he explained. “You want plenty of Fs on your calendar and not too many Ds,” he said.
Rodney Lowman, Ph.D., president of Lowman & Richardson/Consulting Psychologists based in San Diego, Calif., added that the winter is a time where organizations tend to feel less pressure in terms of workload, and as a result, employees may have more of an opportunity to seek out colleagues that they can connect with. “Build relationships at work, and you’ll be more likely to reap the benefits of the social support that follows,” he said. Also focus on activities outside of work that you don’t normally engage in but have an interest in, such as attending a classical music concert or going to a museum, he added.
“Physical activity is really important to revitalize us,” Quick said. He suggests at least 20 minutes of exercise for at least six days a week, and that can involve anything from walking, running, strength training or stretching. At work, this could involve walking to an employee’s office, hitting the gym during your lunch break or walking longer distances to and from your public transportation in the beginning and end of your workdays.
Keep a healthy diet
Individuals who struggle with the winter blues tend to overeat, said Nancy Molitor, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Wilmette, Illinois. Often, they tend to load up on extra carbs, which adds extra pounds and then, extra stress. “All of this could make you feel more depressed,” she warned. “Focus on foods that are healthy and will give you energy back and reassess which vitamins you’re taking,” she said.
Take a quick getaway
“If you have the option, take a holiday between now and the end of March or April,” Molitor suggested. “Short bursts of a warmer climate in the middle of winter can do wonders for your mood and energy.” If you can’t do that, studies have shown that even getting outdoors and taking in the fresh air and some sun can make a difference, she added.
Do something charitable
“Feeling unfulfilled can be a real downer, but you can boost your own mood by doing something charitable,” Aries said. “The winter is the perfect time to do that, since there are lots of opportunities for giving back around the holidays and right after.” Aries suggested carrying around some warm socks or gloves to hand out to people on the street who are homeless, or adopting a family to help with gift giving around the holidays. “Do something nice for others and it will boost your mood more than doing something nice for yourself,” she explained.
Embrace a sense of wonder
“People who are really successful in the winter tend to embrace the season rather than fight it,” Lowman said. Take on winter activities like skiing or skating, bundle up and take a walk outside, or just generally speaking, appreciate that with winter comes this sense of wonder,” he said. “At work, try to see things in a new light. Think about what’s really impressive about what your organization does and seek out a new approach to how you can appreciate others’ roles and your role in that bigger picture,” he said.