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Mental Health in the Workplace: Why Are People Hesitant to Speak Up?

Dr Jessica Yu

Written by Jessica Yu, Ph.D.

Published 11/21/2023

An Alaska Airlines pilot made headlines last month after he boarded the cockpit of a flight from Everett, Washington to San Francisco, California and attempted to cut its fuel supply.

Since then, additional news stories have revealed what transpired on that flight and the events leading up to it. One fact stands out: he likely suffered from depression, but never sought assessment or treatment for it for fear that doing so would negatively affect his livelihood.

The particulars of this story are unique. To ensure the safety of pilots and passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration does have strict protocols to determine whether and under what conditions pilots with certain mental health problems can fly. 

In the case of depression that is being treated with antidepressants, a pilot may be authorized to fly if they are diagnosed with mild to moderate depression, have been on a stable dose of medication for 6 months, are being treated with an approved medication and do not have a mental health history that would indicate a more complex or severe case.

However, the themes of this story are common. In fact, a patient of mine recently wrestled with a decision to pursue a higher level of care because she was concerned about how it would affect her career.

She had struggled with crippling anxiety and depression for years, worked with several individual therapists and psychiatrists on a weekly basis, engaged in a few support groups, tried various complementary therapies—and was at an impasse. 

When we came across an intensive outpatient program that seemed well equipped to meet her needs, she hesitated when she started to consider how she would request time off from work, what she would tell her manager and co-workers and what any of it would mean for her career progression.

Ultimately, my patient entered the program. But her story, as well as that of the Alaska Airlines pilot, are sobering reminders of the stigma that continues to exist around mental health. It is well established that mental health disorders are common—1 in 5 U.S. adults currently lives with one. And yet many professionals are hesitant to acknowledge their mental health concerns. 

Surveys show that nearly 50% of employees worry about being open about their mental health because they believe doing so may lead to repercussions including unemployment. With a cooling job market that has employment seekers nervous about when they’ll secure their next opportunity, this statistic is likely to increase.

Is there anything we can do?

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First and foremost, we can remind ourselves that prioritizing our mental health will only enable us to do our best work. Research consistently shows that poor mental health can negatively affect employees’ job performance, productivity, professional engagement and communication with co-workers. Therefore, taking care of our mental health can help us be the engaged, productive employees we want to be.

Secondly, we can become courageous enough to acknowledge when our mental health is affecting our work. This may manifest in procrastinating on projects, being late for meetings, poor communication with managers and co-workers or a sense of apathy or agitation when it comes to work.

When we notice these things happening, we can utilize our sick days (remember, prioritizing our mental health will only enable us to do our best work) or open up to our managers for support.

When it comes to opening up to our managers, we can be honest about our current circumstances without offering more than we are comfortable sharing. We can say, “I am experiencing some health concerns and want to make sure I continue to do good work.”

And we can request specific help by asking, “Can you help me prioritize projects so I can make sure to put the most effort toward those?” Or, if we feel unable to work due to our mental health, we can ask our managers for help navigating company policies.

Thirdly, we can become aware of the mental health benefits and protections available through our workplace. By and large, employers want to help employees feel their best, and thus, many offer a variety of tools and interventions to help employees with mental health concerns. 

In addition to services covered by insurance, these may include access to mental health applications, free counseling via Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and opportunities to try different health and wellness programs.

Review your benefits information to see what your company offers when it comes to mental health resources and coverage. If you have questions and don’t feel comfortable asking your manager, see if there’s an HR partner at your company who may be able to provide more information.

Keep in mind federal law protects employees from workplace discrimination due to their mental health—although there may be industry- or company-specific policies in place, as the American Airlines story has shown us.

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Most of us are proud of the work we do and have worked hard to get to where we are in our careers. At the same time, many of us struggle with anxiety, depression, stress, burnout and other mental health concerns.

In order to continue doing the great work we do, we must be brave enough to overcome the stigma that still plagues mental health and learn to care for ourselves first. It may feel risky to put things on pause while you seek help, but chances are you (and your career) will be stronger on the other side.

6 Sources

  1. Baker, M. (2023, November 10). Is This Hell? The Pilot Accused of Trying to Crash a Plane Tells His Story. The New York Times.
  2. Federal Aviation Administration. (2023). Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners. https://www.faa.gov/ame_guide/app_process/exam_tech/item47/amd/antidepressants
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. (2023). Mental Illness. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness#:~:text=Mental%20illnesses%20are%20common%20in,(57.8%20million%20in%202021).
  4. Onque, R. (2022, September 13). 49% of workers fear repercussions for being open about their mental health at work. CNBC.
  5. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2018). Mental Health in the Workplace.
  6. U.S. Department of Labor. (2023). What do I have to do? Things employers are required to do by law. https://www.dol.gov/general/mental-health-at-work
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