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Nation's Physician Releases Employer Guide for Fostering Wellness at Work

A woman sitting at a desk with a laptop and a cup of coffee.

The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, called on employers to invest in the mental health and well-being of their workforce as reports of "quiet quitting" and the Great Resignation underscore how the COVID-19 pandemic changed the nature of work. Murthy released a new Surgeon General's Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace that outlines the role workplaces should play in promoting wellness—and strengthening organizations' success in the process.

He pointed to recent surveys that found:

Murthy called his 30-page downloadable PDF a resource that employers can use as a foundation to foster mental and physical wellness in their workplaces. The framework is divided into what Murthy considers five essential areas for workplace mental health and well-being, with resources on the following for employers:

  1. Protection from harm. This includes steps for prioritizing workplace physical and psychological safety, enabling adequate rest, normalizing and supporting mental health and making diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility a part of how an organization operates. There is information on safety programs, such as Oregon's Healthy Workforce Center toolkit and free resources from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  2. Connection and community. This is about creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, cultivating trusted relationships, and fostering collaboration and teamwork. It includes a link to the Job Accommodation Network's directory to help employers and individuals determine effective accommodations and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  3. Work/life harmony. This looks at ways to provide workers with more autonomy over how work is done, making schedules as flexible and predictable as possible, increasing access to paid leave, and respecting work and nonwork time boundaries.
    It includes research from the University of California Berkley on how burnout decreased among 911 dispatchers across nine U.S. cities after the dispatchers received e-mails for six weeks that contained true stories affirming how their work made a difference in someone's life. One e-mail, for example, highlighted the story of a dispatcher who saved the life of a woman experiencing domestic abuse.
    Sharing these stories among the 500 dispatchers "fostered a greater sense of belonging as more dispatchers were able to empathize with the stories and challenges shared by colleagues," according to the Surgeon General's report, and illustrated how "low-cost interventions for building social connections, helping workers feel valued, and creating a platform for trusted work relationships can mitigate burnout and contribute to worker well-being."
  4. Mattering at work. This includes providing a living wage, engaging workers in workplace decisions, building a culture of gratitude and recognition, and making clear how the employee's work connects with the organization's mission. Resources include the Healthy Workplace Participatory Program Toolkit from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
  5. Opportunity for growth. This focuses on offering quality training, education and mentoring; fostering clear, equitable paths for career advancement; and providing relevant, reciprocal feedback to employees. Its suggestions for fostering learning and development include offering monthly or annual subscription services to recorded trainings and webinars, offering certification or credentialing, and providing dedicated time at work for learning.
    "Even if you don't reimburse for any fees or expenses, you can always allow employees to use dedicated work time to learn or practice new skills," the Surgeon General's report noted. "Employees should hear from senior leadership that professional development is a work expense. Time off should be billed to work, not vacation, and employees shouldn't be expected to learn."

The PDF also includes a deck of "Reflection Questions" for leaders. Among the questions posed: How might we create moments for social connection before or after formal meeting agendas? What opportunities are there for rest within our work schedule and workplace, are they adequate, and how do we know if they are adequate? How can we more transparently share results from worker surveys and follow through on their ideas?

As the U.S. recovers from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Murthy said in a news statement, "we have an opportunity and the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being.

"It will require organizations to rethink how they protect workers from harm, foster a sense of connection among workers, show workers that they matter, make space for their lives outside work, and support their growth." 


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