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A New Framework for Mental Health in the Workplace

Recently, the U.S. surgeon general recommended workplace wellness strategies.

Key points

  • Research shows that 81% of workers will look for workplaces that support mental health in the future.
  • Working virtually from home may have its appeal, but it can also be very isolating.
  • Adhering to well-being principles on all levels of an organization can help workplace environments become places of resiliency.

By Robert Goldman, J.D., Psy.D., Web Garrison, Ph.D., Justine Mahler

As is evident by virtually any metric, workplace conditions affect the vast majority of American adults on a daily basis. If someone works a 40-hour workweek, almost half of their waking life is spent involved in work. While increased attention has been placed on the importance of work conditions on mental health and well-being in recent years, much of this focus has happened within the private sector or in areas of research. Importantly, on Oct. 20, 2022, the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A., released a framework for mental health and well-being in the workplace.

As Murthy has noted:

  • 76% of U.S. workers in a 2021 survey reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition (anxiety, depression), an increase of 17 percentage points in just two years.
  • 81% of workers reported that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.
  • 84% of respondents reported at least one workplace factor that had a negative impact on their mental health.

The above statistics are startling and suggest that workers are demanding a paradigm shift in what they expect from the workplace. While more people are working from home, the employee, perhaps more than ever, requires connection to their colleagues. Working virtually may have its advantages, but it can also be very isolating.

Murthy has importantly articulated several essentials for workplace mental health and well-being to emphasize the importance of mental health in the workplace, as well as to help organizations create a work environment supportive of the mental health of employees. These are:

Protection From Harm: Creating the conditions for physical and psychological safety is a critical foundation for ensuring mental health and well-being in the workplace. In order to promote practices that better assure protection from harm, workplaces can prioritize workplace physical and psychological safety. Psychological safety refers to a climate where all individuals feel comfortable expressing themselves, without fear of judgment or backlash. Studies have shown that workplaces that create a climate of psychological safety have employees that trust their superiors more and are overall happier.

Psychologically safe environments promote speaking up, sharing opinions, and collaboration without fear. When we acknowledge that wellness is an effort, then we can normalize support by focusing on resiliency. Resiliency is a philosophy that is prevention focused.

Connection and Community: Fostering positive social interaction and relationships in the workplace supports worker well-being. This can be done by creating opportunities to connect. We also cannot expect that employees are able to leave their personal problems at home. Many employees only know each other by their email, and there is little connection to community. Creating this space virtually is one way to bring back the "water cooler."

Create Cultures of Inclusion and Belonging. By creating a space where we acknowledge that we see differences before similarities, we create a culture that acknowledges implicit bias. Then we can begin to have authentic dialogue.

Work-Life Harmony: Professional and personal roles can create work and non-work conflicts. In order to promote practices that better assure work-life harmony, employees need to be educated about how to prevent conflict and offer ways to transform the inevitable conflict into a harmonious resolution.

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.

To create a culture of mattering at work, employers need to provide a space where positive behavior is noted and rewarded. Because our brains are wired to focus on the bad, we cannot assume that this happens organically.

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 ensure that employees are connected to the values of their work and work to develop competency and provide autonomy. Each workplace environment is different and it is necessary to assess how such opportunities are present at work.

This newly articulated framework dovetails with the literature and practices related to supporting resiliency. Each of the principles articulated relates to creating an environment of resiliency. While those within the profession of psychology may immediately understand the importance of and see the value in the framework put forth by the surgeon general, the principles are only now beginning to be recognized by the broader community of humanity as being of such significance. Adhering to these principles on all levels of an organization can help workplace environments become a place of resiliency, connection, restoration, and renewal, as opposed to the traditional model of places simply of productivity and/or profit.

While the surgeon general’s new framework gives expression to the importance of mental health in the workplace, it does not articulate how the changes are to be implemented nor the form that these essentials will take; in fact, each work environment is unique and each occupation has its own specific set of challenges. Thus, developing a variety of strategies for creating a healthy organizational culture is the responsibility of the employer, but there should not be a “one size fits all” mentality.

The five central principles in the surgeon general’s new framework are fully consistent with the philosophies and practices of workplaces that understand that a worker’s health and well-being, whether mental or physical, is integral to the overall health and well-being of the business.

The surgeon general has recognized that resiliency is a philosophy and that wellness is an effort that cannot be practiced by a well-intentioned one-day workshop on employee wellness. Many employers may be intimidated by challenges as set forth by Murthy. Hopefully, there will be funding opportunities for the employer to implement such changes. However, if employers value retaining employees and ensuring production and presentism, providing resiliency training for employees is a worthwhile investment.

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