When I was a kid, I used to think that the U.S. Surgeon General was a doctor who treated all the senior officers in the U.S. Armed Forces. As I got a little older, and I figured out there was no connection to the military in the role, I got a clearer idea of who the Surgeon General was—namely, the person who put all those warning labels on cigarette packages. Those warnings, in fact, were quite effective in keeping me from smoking; not so much, unfortunately, in my dad’s case.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the US Surgeon General is “the nation’s doctor, providing Americans with the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury.” That job description is even more impressive than the imaginary one I concocted in my youth.
The current Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has largely been focused on the pandemic for the past few years, and lately he’s been particularly concerned about its lingering effects—not just the physical nature of the virus, but also its impact on mental and emotional health as well. In October 2022, Dr. Murthy’s office released a Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace, which is said to be the first time a Surgeon General has issued a report specifically addressing workplace mental health.
“A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and healthier communities,” saidMurthy in announcing the framework. “As we recover from the worst of the pandemic, we have an opportunity and the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being, and this framework shows us how we can start. 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. It will be worth it, because the benefits will accrue for workers and organizations alike.”
In explaining the need for workplaces to increase their vigilance on promoting mental health, Murthy cited several disturbing workplace statistics:
- 76% of U.S. workers last year reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition (such as anxiety or depression). Prior to the pandemic, the percentage was 59%.
- 81% of workers anticipate seeking work at organizations that support mental health.
- 84% of workers have experienced at least one workplace incident that has had a negative impact on their mental health.
The framework maps out five essential areas that employers should focus on to contribute to a culture of workplace safety (see sidebar below, “How to Support the Mental Health of Your Workers”). In fact, as we noted in EHS Today's Mental Health in the Workplace Report, companies must do a better job of allocating resources to prioritize mental health awareness, support and treatment. Substance abuse, workplace violence and major depressive episodes have markedly increased since the onset of COVID, and yet nearly 30% of the 1,100 people surveyed for the report say that their companies still devote much more attention to protecting employees’ physical health than their mental health.
As an advocate for the nation’s youth, Murthy has helped raise the general public’s awareness of the mental health crisis in school-aged children, and it’s hoped that the workplace framework will contribute to a heightened sense of alarm among all employers. Safety leaders have long known about the importance of protecting their workers from dangers both external and internal, and having the Surgeon General’s imprimatur on the framework can go a long way in reinforcing the message that an organization’s financial health is ultimately dependent on its employees’ mental and physical health.
How to Support the Mental Health of Your Workers
1. Protection from Harm
• Prioritize workplace physical and psychological safety
• Operationalize diversity, equity & inclusion policies
2. Connection and Community
• Foster collaboration and teamwork
• Cultivate trusted relationships
3. Work-Life Harmony
• Make schedules as flexible and predictable as possible
• Respect boundaries between work and non-work time
4. Mattering at Work
• Build a culture of gratitude and recognition
• Connect individual work with organizational mission
5. Opportunity for Growth
• Offer quality training, education, and mentoring
• Ensure relevant, reciprocal feedback