From the “Great Resignation” to “quiet quitting,” buzzwords broadcast what too many workers unfortunately know firsthand – that, by and large, the workplace is overdue for a serious revamp. 

A new report from the office of the Surgeon General states that “a healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and a healthy community.” But, as the report goes on to explain, American workers are seriously stressed out – and the stakes are higher than many employers may have realized. 

“It’s rather sad that the Surgeon General has to produce a report that states what’s obvious to so many of us, but then again, it’s what it took to get cigarette smoking treated as a bad thing,” says Richard Nash, an executive coach and strategist in New York City. 

Nash extends the cigarette-smoking analogy to apply to the relationship between workers and companies. Just as a person needs healthy lungs in order to thrive, companies rely on the health of their workers to succeed. On the flip side, Nash warns, “An unhealthy workforce will corrode an organization from the inside.”

When employers don’t prioritize a healthy work environment or fail to account for the work-life balance of their teams, they aren’t only jeopardizing productivity and morale within the company – they’re setting their workers up for potentially serious physical and mental health setbacks.

The Surgeon General’s report cites a 2021 survey in which over three-quarters of respondents reported experiencing one or more symptoms of a mental health condition. An overwhelming majority – 84% – listed at least one workplace factor, like work-life balance or the job’s emotional demands, that was having a detrimental impact on their mental health.

To put it another way, toxic work environments are a threat to public health. 

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The human body simply hasn’t evolved to process the prolonged stress that’s frequently caused, or exacerbated, by modern workplaces that prioritize output over outcomes. We’re still wired for fight-or-flight reactions to acute physical threats. The elevated cortisol levels brought on by chronic stress can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems, and cognitive decline (among many other scary things). 

A psychologically safe and empowering work environment, on the other hand, promotes worker well-being, which in turn makes companies stronger and more resilient. Ample research has shown, time and time again, that worker happiness is directly linked to improved productivity

Which is why it’s disconcerting that the hallmarks of a toxic workplace – including “heavy workloads…unpredictable schedules, limited autonomy, long work hours…and a variety
of other work-related challenges” as identified by the Surgeon General’s report – persist for so many employees. This dysfunction shows in worker stress levels, and it shows in workplace attrition. A recent report by MIT Sloan found that toxic work environments were the number-one reason workers were quitting their jobs in record numbers at the end of last year. Even now, workplace stress is at a global all-time high, especially in the U.S. and Canada and particularly among women, according to Gallup’s 2022 “State of the Global Workplace” report.

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The good news is that organizations can take concrete steps to promote the happiness of their workers. But simply tossing workers a complimentary subscription to a meditation app or a handful of paid-for teletherapy sessions – while potentially helpful in the short term – isn’t going to cut it. 

“An organization needs to both adopt a culture and a set of norms that support health and periodically screen themselves for where things might be going wrong,” says Nash, the executive coach. “When things go wrong, you then make a serious intervention.”

Where to begin? The Surgeon General’s report identifies five key pillars for workplace mental health and well-being: protection from harm; connection and community; work-life harmony; a sense of mattering at work; opportunity for growth. All of these revolve around the central principle of worker voice and equity.

The idea is that workers who feel entrusted with autonomy by their employer, who see their role as a vehicle for personal growth and community, and who feel physically and psychologically safe at work, will be better positioned to thrive both on the job, and outside of it.

What’s more, their bodies and minds will be primed for resilience in work and in life.

“When you feel a sense of well-being at work, you’re more likely to engage in helping behaviors toward your fellow coworkers, which cultivates trust and belonging,” says Paula Davis, the founder and CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute and the author of Beating Burnout at Work. “And well-being is a team sport; to do it well, organizations need to think systemically. What do frontline workers need, what do leaders need, and what do teams need to thrive?”

The formula is simple: a work culture of support and mutual respect allows every member of a team to feel their best and makes each person better equipped to do their best work. A positive work environment empowers individuals to take risks and push big ideas, while fostering teams that can effectively collaborate to achieve the best results. At the other end of the equation are workers that are happier, healthier, and more productive. 

What’s needed is a comprehensive workplace culture shift, and it starts at the top of every organization. From there, everybody wins.

The US Surgeon General is prioritizing workplace wellbeing – and it’s about time everyone else did, too