How to hack your winter workday to boost your mood

Sneak in some outdoor time, nurture social connections and more tips from experts to help lift your spirits.

Sneak in some outdoor time, nurture social connections and more tips from experts to help lift your spirits

A woman using her tablet at home in front of a window.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Dragging yourself out of a warm, cosy bed to scrape ice off your car windows before the sun's even peeked over the horizon? Welcome to a winter workday in Canada. 

With many being asked to return to the office full-time, this year could be especially tough. Are you already feeling the slog? Read on for expert advice on how to boost your mood during cold and dark winter days.  

Why winter is hard

As Canadians are keenly aware, the hours available to enjoy daylight have diminished this time of year, and our bodies must adjust to that loss of light. "Some people have difficulty with that," said Dr. Robert Levitan, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. "And so, their sleep-wake cycle goes out of whack," he added, referring to our daily patterns of time asleep versus active periods. 

This means it can be harder to get up in the morning, and we may feel less energized and unproductive. According to Dr. Levitan, the lack of light can also disturb the functioning of our body's feel-good chemicals (neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine), which can bring down our mood. We might also see an increase in appetite and cravings for carbohydrates and sugar, he notes.

For some, these disturbances can lead to a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), although only about three to five per cent of people have true clinical depression that can be diagnosed as SAD, according to Dr. Levitan. He holds the Cameron Parker Holcombe Wilson Chair in Depression Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto.

But for those of us suffering from the plain old winter blues — which Dr. Levitan says can affect as much as one-third of the population — how can we beat back the urge to crawl back under the blankets?

Get out there

The first step, sorry to say, is getting out of bed and, yes, leaving the house. "Even if it doesn't feel great, for some people, it's better for them to get out of their house and go to work," said Dr. Levitan. He himself makes it a point to go to the office several days a week, despite having the flexibility to work from anywhere. 

And if you work from home? "Getting outside, even 15 minutes a day, can actually boost your energy and mood," said Vera Cheng, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and founder of Talk Therapy with Vera. If you can, dress warmly and get outside during your lunch break. If the word 'break' reads like a cruel joke, consider taking a meeting while walking outside. Even stepping onto your balcony for five minutes of fresh air can help, says Cheng. 

Another way to get a lift? Look out. "There's actually studies that speak to the mental health boosts of just having a window where you can see the outdoors," said Leigh Potvin, director and assistant professor at the School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

At the office, choose a desk near a window if you can. Find a sunny atrium in your building and enjoy a coffee in the natural light. Bring in a few plants — a recent study showed that having more greenery indoors improved mental health during the pandemic. 

For some people who struggle with their moods in the winter, sitting by a light therapy lamp for 30 minutes in the morning can help, according to Dr. Levitan. However, you should check with a health-care professional before trying one.

Move your body

Physical activity can offset a low mood at any time of year. "Exercise can help you decompress and leave you feeling refreshed and give you a sense of accomplishment," said Cheng.

If you're not someone who regularly hits the gym, she suggests finding creative ways to sneak in movement "snacks." Take the stairs at the office. Park your car at the far end of the parking lot. Look for some gentle stretching videos online. Remember, every little bit helps. 

Potvin said regular outdoor recreation in the colder months was a game-changer for her mental health. "It made the winters feel a lot shorter for me," she explained. She stresses that an activity doesn't have to be complicated, expensive or even intense to be beneficial. "So much of the conversation that we have as adults about recreation is to call it 'exercise.' And as soon as we call it exercise, it becomes a body punishment," she said. A short stroll while listening to music or a podcast is often enough to shake a gloomy mood.

Connect with others

Social connection is important for our mental health year-round, but winter can be an especially good time to reach out to family and friends to make plans. Cheng says it's a good way to switch up your routine while also creating an opportunity to discuss your emotions when you're feeling bogged down. 

The opportunity to socialize is a perk of heading back to the office, even if it's through quick and breezy interactions. If you're not someone who regularly schedules lunch or coffee dates with your co-workers, try making small talk in the kitchen or on the elevator. 

Double up on the mental health benefits of socializing by making plans to be active with others. "Reframing it as enjoyment or celebration can be key," Potvin said. Head to a local pool together for a hit of warmth and freedom from bulky layers. Make a plan to grab dinner, but walk to the restaurant. Meet at botanical gardens or an indoor bird sanctuary.

When is it time to get help?

Sometimes your best efforts aren't enough. If you're feeling consistently sad, anxious or irritable for more than two weeks, it's time to reach out to a healthcare professional. "If you're really starting to feel overwhelmed and starting to lose interest, and nothing is really helping, that's a sign you need to get some help," said Cheng. A doctor or therapist can provide you with tools to navigate your low mood and find your way back to brighter days.


Jen Lauriault is a Collingwood, Ont.-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in Maclean’s, Today’s Parent and Chatelaine.

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