American Airlines and Mental Health in the Workplace

By January 20, 2020News

Dr. Campbell was a participant at Give an Hour’s Global Summit on Mental Health Culture Change in NYC on November 7th, 2019.  As part of the Work Environment Roundtable group, corporations decided to share their stories.  Some will share personal accounts, others will share about programs that they have found useful at their workplace to increase the mental health and well-being of their company.  This is Dr. Campbell’s story and we thank her for sharing.

 

Susan Campbell, PhD, Wellness Strategist at American Airlines

Five years ago, when interviewing for my current position at American Airlines, I met individually with seven people. Each of the 7 mentioned the trauma of Sept 11, 2001 when interviewing me for the position of Wellbeing Strategist. I understood going in that the lives lost (two of the 4 planes were American Airlines—AA 11 and AA 77) created a grief so deep that the airline had yet to recover. In the five ensuing years, I’ve witnessed additional stressors being placed on the airline: coming out of bankruptcy and a merger, an entire line of 30+ aircraft being taken out of service without a drop in reservations, multiple weather disasters, union negotiations, all layered upon the personal stressors of half a million people flying American Airlines each day.

However, I’ve also met the most resilient group of team mates you can imagine—130,000 of them! Over 80% of us are unionized. With six unions plus the company caring for its members, not a day goes by that the topic of mental health doesn’t come up. The company has changed several of its policies to better support mental health and substance use disorders. We offer onsite, no cost mental health support at 10 of our largest sites. We’ve changed our wellbeing vendor to another who includes resources for emotional and financial health in addition to physical health. We’ve incorporated questions on mental health in our onsite clinic wellness assessments. We’ve fighting to find mental health clinicians who can treat our team members and their families more timely and with better outcomes.  Our 20 Employee Business Resource Groups (EBRGs) adopted mental health as their signature topic last fall and hosted fascinating roundtables and conferences to get the word out. My favorite included a speaker who spoke about mental health as a social justice issue. Two of our vice presidents hosted a video chat recently to discuss mental health and shared their beliefs that we ALL have challenges.

In addition to company resources, our three largest unions offer peer support services.  Hundreds of trained peer volunteers answer calls daily in support of others.  These peer support volunteers attend annual mental health and/or substance abuse trainings and serve as the best of American Airlines—they save lives as they listen and refer out as trained.  As an example, our flight attendants truly are first responders.  Their one irrevocable task is to get us off a plane within 90 seconds should an emergency dictate.  In the meantime, they push 280 pound beverage carts to keep in shape to lift those heavy airline doors and take our drink orders. However they also can perform CPR for over an hour to save a life in the air, they can bandage a deep wound when an onboard animal bites into someone fearing that their master’s life was threatened, and when severe turbulence hits, it’s not only us passengers that fear for our lives, but the flight attendants themselves can be traumatized.  The peer support volunteers, working in tandem with master’s level clinicians provided through company contracts, meet every flight when a critical incidence happens.  We have over 60 pilots trained to listen to their aviator colleagues, knowing that pilots weather their own stressors—frequently away from home and their families, our pilots have come to depend on the listening ear of the Project Wingman and HIMS volunteers.

We’re a company who cares and listens. We’ve survived deep trauma yet because of our bonds, we’re stronger and dedicated to help others. And we still want to get better. We still need to improve. And so we look to Change Direction, too, together.

 

Susan Campbell, Ph.D., health and wellness strategy leader for American Airlines, enhances personal and community well-being by learning from and developing close working relationships with unionized health and aeromedical leaders. She also promotes wellness across company platforms. During her tenure, American Airlines has built prevention and acute care into occupational health in 11 on-site clinics and has transitioned all clinics to external vendors.

Before joining American Airlines, she was managing director at her consulting firm, Campbell Consulting.

From 1994 to 1999, Campbell worked as the U.S. Department of Defense department head, where she developed and evaluated wellness programs. From 1999 to 2013, she served in various roles at the Cooper Institute, including vice president for education and strategic initiatives and chief mission officer.

Campbell has an Bachelor of Science in parks and recreation from East Carolina University, a Master of Education in counseling from Boston University, and a Ph.D. of Philosophy in human services from Capella University in Minneapolis.

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