Worker Well-being Takes Center Stage: Fireside Chat with the U.S. Surgeon GeneralPosted on by
U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, participated in a fireside chat on the final day of the 3rd International Symposium to Advance Total Worker Health®. Dr. Murthy joined Dr. L. Casey Chosewood, Director of the NIOSH Total Worker Health (TWH) Program, for a conversation about protecting and promoting worker safety, health, and well-being.
Prioritizing Mental Health
The fireside chat began with an overview of the broader mental health crisis in the U.S. Dr. Murthy described disturbing trends in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and deaths by suicide seen across age groups. He stated that on average, it takes young people 11 years to seek care after first experiencing mental health symptoms. With the substantial amount of time we spend at work, Dr. Murthy noted that the days of ‘checking our baggage at the door’ when coming to and leaving work are long over. He emphasized the reality that work affects mental health, in and outside of the workplace. Workplaces that prioritize their workers’ mental health can help increase their productivity, creativity, and retention. Though this is not an issue exclusive to the pandemic, he noted, recent events led workers to consider what they want out of the workplace and what they are willing to sacrifice. Workplace efforts to protect and improve workers’ mental health are an investment that will pay off for workers and organizations.
How Workplaces Can Help
In response to the next question, Dr. Murthy described how workplaces can help achieve our goal of making mental health and well-being accessible to every worker regardless of where they work. This is not a goal that workplaces can achieve alone but we can start by prioritizing and supplying resources to all levels of an organization, not just human resources professionals. In his work studying the trends known as the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting,” Dr. Murthy found that workers consistently say they want to feel:
- Safe: Occupational safety and health professionals know that safety is critical but not everyone experiences this in the workplace. For example, 80% of health care workers reported being verbally or physically attacked during the pandemic.
- Valued: Workers want to know that they matter and their work matters. Sometimes we assume that people know this, but we must overcommunicate it to make sure workers feel appreciated.
- Supported: Strong support from leadership and colleagues has profound benefits on workers’ mental health and well-being. Dr. Murthy shared a story of his own experience during a difficult time working as a resident when support from leadership, administrative officials, and coworkers helped show him he wasn’t alone.
Health Care Worker Mental Health and Burnout
The subject of confronting health worker burnout is an incredibly important issue to the U.S. and to Dr. Murthy personally. Workers from across all aspects of health care, like nurses, doctors, public health workers, and more, worked throughout the pandemic putting others before themselves. These sacrifices continue to take a physical and mental toll on workers, some of whom were subject to attacks and lacked protections at work. However, burnout was an issue before the pandemic. Dr. Murthy’s team recently released an advisory to raise public awareness, emphasizing that this crisis affects everyone and that we can all play a role in addressing it. For example, health care systems can create safer environments and provide better access to mental health services. In the workplace, in communities, and as patients, we can all show appreciation and gratitude to these workers at every opportunity, not just during the pandemic. These workers face long hours, workplace hazards, and often endure administrative burdens such as prior authorizations or tedious record-keeping, which keeps them in front of screens instead of hands-on with patients. Learn more about NIOSH efforts to protect health worker mental health.
Preventing Burnout in Other Occupations and Industries
Dr. Murthy also recognized that many other workers are experiencing burnout, especially essential workers who helped society continue to function during the pandemic. This work took its toll. Dr. Murthy discussed the lag between an immediate stressor, like a hurricane or another emergency event, and the timing of when mental health symptoms show up. He emphasized burnout as a workplace phenomenon, not caused by an individuals’ mental health status but as a byproduct of workplace issues. Workers may be in environments without a sense of connection or support, may be asked to do more than time or resources allow, and may experience discrimination or a toxic environment, all leading to burnout. It is critical to ensure that mental health resources are available to workers as we continue to see different manifestations, like depression and burnout. Supportive policies are crucial to ensure workers have access to care, including insurance that covers accessible services.
However, a possible silver lining of the tremendous costs of the pandemic is that, as Dr. Murthy noted, it provides an opportunity to rethink healthy work. We can design workplace environments that support mental health and well-being, where people feel more connected. This doesn’t necessarily require funding for workplaces to accomplish, but it does require commitment. Leadership can demonstrate their commitment to mental health and well-being by talking about these issues with workers and providing access to counselors and care. Perhaps more importantly, we can use this momentum to make sustainable changes in workplace policies, practices, and programs.
Final Thoughts and Words of Encouragement
In the final moments of the fireside chat, Dr. Murthy expressed the importance of culture, one of the most powerful things we can create and contribute to, but also one of the most challenging. To create better workplaces, we must have a culture that supports well-being and values workers for who they are – regardless of background. Dr. Murthy continued with a call to action for us all to lead by example and live out the values in our personal mission statements. He emphasized that the future will be driven by the values we choose to live out and lift up. He reiterated that, regardless of where we live and work and our backgrounds, many people want a future informed by compassion, kindness, inclusion, and love- efforts that we can make right now, without any policies or programs.
The Future of the TWH Movement
We hope that the symposium inspires you as you work to move the field of TWH into the future. In addition to our conversation with Dr. Murthy, the final day of the symposium also featured the launch of the Society for TWH™. The Society for TWH is a non-profit member organization made up of individuals and partners dedicated to the advancement of worker health, safety, well-being, and productivity through TWH. The Society will serve as a hub and community for sharing new and innovative ideas to expand TWH research, training, education, dissemination, and real-world solutions. This effort is led by the Center for Health, Work & Environment, a Center of Excellence for TWH, at the Colorado School of Public Health.
“The issues facing today’s workers and workplaces require a new approach,” said Dr. Chosewood. “The Society will bring together people from across disciplines to address complex challenges, learn from each other, and collectively solve big problems. The field of TWH is expanding rapidly and gaining momentum, increasing the need for a place to convene people who want to help shape our future.” For more information, visit www.twhsociety.org.
Is your workplace taking steps to improve workers’ mental health and well-being? Tell us how below!
This is the final blog in a series covering the 3rd International Symposium to Advance TWH. Read the first and second blog for a recap. Stay connected with the NIOSH TWH program through our quarterly newsletter and webinar series.
Emily Kirby, BPH, is a Health Communication Specialist in the NIOSH Office of Communication and Research to Practice.
L. Casey Chosewood, MD, MPH, is Director of the NIOSH Office for Total Worker Health.