A Look at the U.S. Surgeon General

A Look at the U.S. Surgeon General's Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being

How can employers support their workers' mental health?

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a new Surgeon General’s Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace outlining the foundational role that workplaces should play in promoting the health and well-being of workers and the neighboring communities. As reports of “quiet quitting” and the Great Resignation have shown, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work for many and the relationship that some workers have with their jobs. This 30 page document offers a foundation for employers to build upon.

The framework is centered on the worker’s voice and equity, These are five essential elements which support workplaces as engines of well-being for workers. Each essential element is grounded in two human needs, shared across industries and roles. Creating a strategic management plan to enact these practices can help strengthen the essentials of workplace well‑being. So what has changed over the past several years? Well, here are some interesting statistics about mental health, employers and the workforce in the U.S.:

  1. Seventy-six percent of U.S. workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition.
  2. Eighty-four percent of respondents said their workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge.
  3. Eighty-one percent of workers reported that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.
  4. Seventy-one percent of workers believe their employer is more concerned about their mental health than in the past.

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life. With more than 160 million people with the average full-time worker in the U.S., they spend about half of their waking life at work. Workplaces play a significant role in shaping our mental and physical well-being. Employers have a unique opportunity not only to invest in the mental health and well-being of their workforce, but also to strengthen their organizations’ success by doing so. Improvements in mental health can promote greater human performance, productivity, prosperity and better work-life balance.

Mental health is very different than mental illness. People experience triggers that may cause mental health issues including psychological stress from over worked from staggering workloads, unrealistic deadlines, underutilizing of human talent to perform meaningful work, bullying and sexual harassment, physical illness and stressors in homelife like taking time away from work for illness or caring for a relative, spousal abuse or experiencing economic hardship. It’s important to remember that a person’s mental health can change over time, depending on many geopolitical and socioeconomic factors. These personality changes, along with the use of drugs or alcohol, nutrition or feeling of loneliness and isolation, can affect a person’s physical health and well-being.

Dr. Murthy outlines Five Essentials for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being to help businesses develop, institutionalize and update organizational policies, processes and work practices that best support the mental health and well-being of all workers. Here is what the Surgeon General proposes.

1. Protection from Harm. Create working conditions and working environments for physical and psychological safety that is a critical pillar to institutionalize mental health and well-being in the workplace. In order to promote business practices that better assure protection from harm, workplaces can:

  • Prioritize workplace physical and psychological safety.
  • Enable adequate rest from shift changes or extended work shifts
  • Normalize and support focusing on mental health triggers
  • Operationalize diversity, equality, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and social justice norms for everyone into corporate policies, programs, and procedures

2. Connection and Community: Foster a more positive social interaction and relationships in the workplace supports worker well-being. Promote work practices that better assure worker interpersonal connection and community by:

  • Create cultures of inclusion and belonging
  • Include diversity between cultures and disciplines
  • Cultivate trusted relationships
  • Foster collaboration and teamwork

3. Work-Life Harmony: Professional and personal roles can create work and non-work conflicts. In order to promote work practices that better assure work-life harmony, employers can:

  • Provide more transparency and autonomy over how work is done
  • Promote teamwork collaboration on projects
  • Make schedules as flexible and predictable as possible
  • Increase access to paid leave
  • Respect boundaries between work and non-work time

4. Mattering at Work: People want to know that they matter to those around them and that their work matters. Knowing you matter has been shown to lower stress, while feeling like you do not can increase the risk for depression. In order to better assure a culture of mattering at work, workplaces can:

  • Provide a decent living wage with benefits
  • Engage workers in workplace decisions
  • Build a culture of gratitude and recognition
  • Connect individual work with organizational mission

5. Opportunities for Growth: When organizations create more opportunities for workers to accomplish goals based on their skills and growth, workers become more optimistic about their abilities and more enthusiastic about contributing to the organization. In order to promote practices that better assure opportunities for growth, workplaces can:

  • Offer quality training, education, and mentoring
  • Foster clear, equitable pathways for career advancement
  • Ensure relevant, reciprocal feedback

The Surgeon General’s framework is only a guide to call attention to mental health concerns, developed to help workers better understand and address factors that affect mental health issues. This particular framework provides essential elements that can be used to build a foundation for workplace leaders to engage all workers and equitably support their mental health and well-being. It includes evidence-informed practices that leadership across workplaces of varied sizes and industries can apply to reimagine and reinvigorate their organizations. For more detailed information, click here.

How does the employer know if a worker is suffering from a short- or long-term mental health crisis? Here are some early warning signs:

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and usual activities
  • Having low or no energy
  • Feeling numb or like nothing matters
  • Having unexplained aches and pains
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual
  • Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
  • Yelling or fighting with workers, family and friends
  • Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Having persistent thoughts and memories you can't get out of your head
  • Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
  • Thinking of harming yourself or others at home or work
  • Inability to perform daily work tasks like attend and engage in meetings or communicate during conference calls

Employers can do more by developing and implementing a policy, written program and standard operating procedures while providing mentoring, training and education, and posting information for reference. There are many professional resources to help business improve on mental health in the workplace. Some key initiatives can include, but not limited to, realizing a workers’ full potential, helping workers cope with workload and work life stressors, periodically evaluating performance and productivity, providing human resources and professional counseling to manage personal crises and appreciating the meaningful contributions made by the workforce to the job, a person’s career and to the organization or society.

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