April 5, 2022

When Mental Illness Interferes With Work

It’s being called “The Great Resignation.” Why are people leaving their jobs in mass numbers? Research shows that 68% of millennials and 81% of Gen Zers report leaving jobs for mental health reasons. Subsequently, over three-quarters of respondents indicated having at least one mental health symptom impacting their work(. 

Work can be undoubtedly stressful at times, but when you have a mental illness, the challenges often feel even more complex and difficult. Navigating your job- while also managing your mental health- may require insight, advocacy, and multifaceted treatment. 

The Intersection of Mental Illness and Workplace Conduct 

Any mental illness can affect one’s ability to concentrate, function, and perform effectively at work. However, some conditions tend to cause more difficulties than others. Here are some common mental health issues and how they can affect workplace conduct. 


Depression affects 280 million people, and it is one of the most common causes of disability worldwide. 

Although depression exists on a wide spectrum, its symptoms typically pose significant barriers to concentration, self-esteem, and energy. These barriers often affect one’s work performance and affect one’s time management and reliability. 

Depression can be situational (meaning a specific event triggers it), or it can be more global and general. In both cases, symptoms tend to include a cluster of emotional and physical problems like:

  • Sleep disturbances (insomnia, fatigue, nightmares)
  • Appetite changes
  • Suicidal thoughts or plans
  • Feeling sad, worthless, or apathetic for most of the day
  • Low self-esteem
  • Distractibility or irritability 


Anxiety can make everyday tasks feel daunting and overwhelming. For instance, someone with anxiety might avoid seeking specific, career-related opportunities. They might talk themselves out of leading meetings, seeking promotions, or drawing attention to specific workplace issues.

Moreover, anxiety can also coincide with perfectionism and procrastination. During the workday, it may trigger intense physical symptoms like panic attacks, severe migraines, or gastrointestinal distress.

Anxiety can be specific to particular contexts (such as in the event of phobias). But in more general cases, the symptoms tend to be global, and they can severely impact one’s confidence and capabilities in the workplace. 

Substance Use Disorders

Even mild substance use disorders often affect workplace functioning. More severe addiction problems may lead to serious consequences, particularly when it comes to workplace safety.

Employees with substance use disorders may come to work under the influence or arrive hungover. They might face a greater risk for impulsive behaviors that can cause severe financial or legal consequences. Other potential problems include:

  • Lower company morale
  • preoccupation/obsession with using or hiding substance use
  • Poor decision-making
  • Engaging in illicit activities at work
  • Making costly mistakes (both directly or indirectly) 


ADHD symptoms can create significant barriers for employees. ADHD often coincides with distractibility, impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention, all of which can negatively affect one’s ability to function appropriately.

Moreover, while research shows that 4% of American adults have ADHD, less than 20% of these individuals have been properly diagnosed. This disparity means that many employees (and employers) are unaware of this condition’s impact in the work setting.

Employees with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD may feel immense shame or confusion about their symptoms. They might assume that they lack willpower or just can’t adequately “get it together” when it comes to their work tasks. 


Burnout refers to a form of emotional exhaustion that happens when feeling persistently drained. Although it isn’t a specific clinical diagnosis, burnout is a real phenomenon impacting countless employees in all industries. 

Burnout often starts slowly. An employee might start feeling cynical about their job. They may notice they feel more tired than usual, or they may fantasize about switching careers altogether. 

However, over time, burnout tends to progress. When left untreated, it can lead to people feeling completely discouraged, apathetic, or disconnected from their careers. Burnout often exacerbates mental health symptoms. For instance, if someone already has depression or anxiety, burnout can make those conditions worse. 

Tips for Overcoming Mental Health Challenges in the Workplace  

Even in supportive environments, you will always need to be your biggest advocate when it comes to protecting your mental health. If you are struggling right now, here are some tips worth trying. 

Learn Your Rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers numerous legal protections for employees. Their definition of a mental disability includes an impairment that significantly limits one or more life activities (which includes work).

The ADA prohibits employers to discriminate against individuals with a record of psychiatric disabilities. They also cannot demote or deny training opportunities for this reason.

Furthermore, employees have a right to privacy under the ADA. They have the freedom to choose if they disclose their disability to their employer. While employers can ask for medical documentation, they cannot share these records with others. In addition, they have a right to receive appropriate workplace accommodations.

Accommodations will vary based on one’s job description and the type of employment. But some common accommodations include:

  • Quieter or private work environments
  • Access to more breaks
  • Ability to work remotely
  • Designated breaks for taking medication or attending appointments
  • Using various aid devices (white noise headphones)

Talk To Your Employer (When Appropriate)

As mentioned, although you aren’t legally obligated to disclose your mental health to your employer, you might find it beneficial to share some of your difficulties. 

Before doing so, it’s helpful to review your current relationship with your boss. For example, do you two share a solid working relationship? Do you believe they would be supportive and empathetic to your struggles? If you’ve answered yes to both of these questions, you might be in a good position for disclosure. 

Even if you don’t necessarily need specific accommodations, keeping your boss in the loop may provide some relief. For one, they have a greater context about some of your potential obstacles. Moreover, they can likely collaborate with you to find helpful solutions to ensure you stay healthy while getting your work done effectively. 

Identify Your Triggers

It’s important to recognize how your specific workplace or career might be impacting your mental health. Some common triggers include:

  • Feeling underappreciated or disrespected 
  • Feeling overworked 
  • Workplace bullying or toxic coworkers/bosses
  • Being asked to routinely perform tasks outside of your scope of competence
  • Increased stress at home (making it difficult to have a work-life balance)
  • Uncertain job security or financial burdens
  • Significant workplace changes

It’s possible that you may be experiencing several triggering situations at the same time. In this case, it makes sense that all the stress impacts your emotional well-being. But recognizing these situations allows you to start making an action plan for change.

Establish Strong Boundaries 

It’s crucial to consider how you honor your needs in the workplace. If you don’t assert yourself, you risk feeling depleted, taken advantage of, or otherwise disrespected. This pattern can persist among clients, coworkers, and supervisors.

Setting boundaries often means saying no more often. For example, if you’re swamped with one project, you may need to turn down a coworker’s request for help with her project. Or, if your boss asks you to stay late one evening, it’s permissible to say no because you have a standing dinner commitment with your family.

Boundaries, of course, can be flexible based on specific circumstances. You won’t always get your way, and it’s important to know when to compromise with others. But, ideally, you should be standing up for yourself and advocating for what you need at work. 

Take Routine Breaks

As much as possible, aim to take breaks throughout your workday. Depending on your schedule or type of work, this may not always be feasible. That said, you should strive to recharge whenever you have the chance. Doing so can help you feel more rejuvenated and motivated.

In that same vein, try to move your body physically. If you need to take a phone call, pace around your office. Instead of sending an email, take the stairs up to your manager to inquire about something directly. Ask a coworker if they want to take a walk during lunch. 

These small changes may not drastically improve your mental health. But they can provide brief spurts of relief throughout the day. Over time, that compounded effect results in less mental and physical tension. 

Optimize Time Management

Poor time management can exacerbate your mental health problems. When you feel overwhelmed with your tasks, you might react by procrastinating, cutting corners, or compulsively “powering through” work. These strategies can lead to adverse effects both in the short and long term. 

Instead, aim to plan your time appropriately each day. It may be helpful to start your morning drafting out a to-do list. Write down the most essential tasks you need to complete first. Then, write down the “maybe” tasks that you want to finish if you tackle the more pressing ones. Work down your list accordingly.

As mentioned, build routine breaks throughout your day. It probably isn’t realistic (or healthy) to expect yourself to pummel through eight or ten hours of work without stopping. Even taking a 5-10 minute breather after working for one hour can help you feel calmer. 

Commit to Ongoing Self-Care

Mental illness can make self-care challenging. You might not feel motivated to exercise or socialize with friends when you don’t feel your best.

But self-care tends to be most important when life gets hard. You need a working routine to help you stay grounded and comfortable. Having one in place often helps to reduce stress while also building confidence.

Self-care includes honoring your physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual health. Try to think of how you can “fill your tank” in each of these areas. Instead of coming home and crashing on the couch after work, reflect on how you can build a small (but positive) routine that separates you from the job.

Seek Therapy 

Therapy can be an invaluable resource for learning about and treating your mental illness. Therapy offers a safe, non-judgmental environment to process your emotions and difficulties. Your therapist will teach you healthy coping skills to manage your stress. Likewise, they can help you explore some of the difficulties associated with your current work duties.

Some employers offer subsidized or free therapy through an employee assistance program (EAP). These programs support employees in navigating personal problems that may interfere with their job performance. It’s worth checking with your HR to determine if your company has an existing EAP.

Review Medication Options

Therapy is one tool for proactively treating your mental health. But many people find that taking psychiatric medication can significantly reduce or even eliminate some of their more problematic symptoms. This tends to be especially true in the event of more severe mental illnesses. 

You can start the conversation with your existing primary care physician or meet with a psychiatrist. They will formally assess your psychiatric and medical history along with your current frequency and intensity of symptoms.

All medications have various risks and side effects. But working with a dedicated treatment team can increase the likelihood of finding the appropriate treatment for your needs

Consider Quitting 

Sometimes, even committing to the most proactive mental health strategies won’t significantly improve how you feel. Variables like toxic workplaces, severe burnout, and continuously declining mental health may indicate that you need a more drastic change. 

Of course, leaving a job can be scary. It’s essential to recognize that fear and reflect on the alternative options you might pursue. 

Many people find that they experience significant relief once leaving or changing jobs. If things aren’t getting better- or they’re only getting worse- it may be time for some serious reevaluation. 

Final Thoughts

If mental illness is interfering with your work, it’s important to take a step back and reflect on the contributing factors. Don’t just assume things will get better with time. Likewise, don’t dismiss yourself as being too sensitive or weak. Your mental health matters, and prioritizing it is paramount for your well-being and productivity. 

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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