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US Surgeon General: Work Impacts Health and Well-Being

Evidence-supported governmental guidance highlights employer responsibility.

Key points

  • On October 20, 2022, the US Surgeon General issued new guidance on workplace mental health and well-being.  
  • It stresses the importance of supporting employee health and well-being, and satisfying the key human needs.
  • Employers that support key employee needs — such as safety, dignity, and growth — will get better results.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.
Yellow balloons with smiley faces.
Source: Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

Employees who worked in toxic environments know from lived experience — underpayment, abusive management, and overwork harm our physical and mental health. Unfortunately, we also know that some employers deny this, and gaslight workers with “you are too sensitive” and “that's how it is in our industry.”

Telling employees to just “grow a thicker skin and deal with it” is a part of the problem that resulted in staggering findings — nearly 84% of workers report that workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge. However, this kind of management just got a little harder to pull off, thanks to the new US Surgeon General's guidance on Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being.

The lack of employee safety and voice might be “how it is” in some organizations. But that does not make it right or "normal."

Now, the US Surgeon General says so.

The thoroughly researched and evidence-supported guidance clearly outlines the role and responsibility of employers in supporting employee health. It’s well past time for employers to follow best practices in supporting the health and well-being of people whose time and talent support the very existence of organizations. The Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being can help leaders do this work.

The Five Essentials of the framework are grounded in foundational human needs: safety and security, social support and belonging, autonomy and flexibility, dignity and meaning, as well as learning and accomplishment.

1. The safety and security needs guide the framework's first essential — protection from harm.

Employee safety means protection from physical harm and injury. This part of responsibility has been relatively established by prior regulation, although the additional focus on stress-related illness can now deepen employer responsibility. Importantly, the framework also focuses on protection from psychological harm such as discrimination, emotional hostility, and bullying – a responsibility often denied by employers, although protection from bias and emotional exclusion is highly consequential for employees.

Moreover, security includes financial and job security. This acknowledges extensive research findings indicating that layoffs and job loss can devastate individuals, families, and communities.

2. Human needs for social support and belonging inform the second essential of the framework — connection and community.

Creating environments that nurture a sense of belonging and connection helps improve the well-being of employees and supports organizational productivity. An important aspect of this work is creating genuine cultures of inclusion and belonging, where employees can feel that their authentic selves are welcomed and accepted.

3. We are whole people who need autonomy and flexibility, and that informs the third essential —work-life harmony.

I prefer the reverse order, life-work, but in any case, flexibility in where, when, and how we work is invaluable to our well-being and to our productivity. The pandemic has shown just how much flexibility has meant for employee health and for inclusion, particularly for people with disabilities who have long been denied workplace participation by outdated and rigid norms. Sustaining and expanding flexibility, rather than pulling it back after the pandemic, is necessary for a healthy and equitable future of work.

4. Humans need to matter. We need dignity and meaning, and that is why the fourth essential is mattering at work.

A crucial component of dignity is paying employees a living wage. It can even save lives. Every $1 increase in the minimum wage of U.S. states could "reduce the suicide rate among people with a high school education or less by nearly 6%." Employers must also ensure that employees are not driven into unpaid overwork. I particularly appreciate this guidance because it helps reduce stress for all while also reducing inequity in the workplace — the burden of extra unpaid labor with the associated health risks has traditionally fallen on the most marginalized.

5. Human needs for learning and accomplishment are the foundation of the fifth essential —opportunity for growth.

Our desire to grow and develop is innate, although it can be dampened in unhealthy environments. When our employers help us grow and flourish, organizations flourish as well. As the guidance suggests, quality training and mentoring as well as clear, equitable pathways for career advancement are among the key ways to foster growth — and well-being.

My colleagues in the field of industrial-organizational psychology have stressed for decades that employee well-being matters, and that employers' policies and practices can do much good — or much harm. And while the work of creating healthy workplaces may seem overwhelming, a great place to start de-toxifying workplaces is by listening to employees and inviting their voices and participation. Inviting the long-silenced and long-marginalized voices might be particularly important. And that is another reason I am so impressed with the new guidance – it places worker voice and equity at the center.

Employees are not "too sensitive." They want to work in thriving organizations, learn, and grow. And listening to their voices can help create a better future of work.

More from Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D.
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