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How to reduce toxicity in the workplace and improve workers’ mental health

How to reduce toxicity in the workplace and improve workers’ mental health
Image: Elisa Ventur / Unsplash

The US Surgeon General recently unveiled a new framework with five essential recommendations to help bosses identify toxicity at work, as well as improve the mental health and well-being of workers.

“The pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to rethink how we work. We have the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being. Doing so will require organisations to rethink how they protect workers from harm, foster a sense of connection among workers, show them that they matter, make space for their lives outside work, and support their long-term professional growth,” the US’s Surgeon General, Doctor Vivek H Murthy, wrote in his introduction to the country’s new Framework for Mental Health and Well-Being, unveiled on 20 October 2022.

Toxicity in the workplace and the health impact of stress

The 48-page document goes on to identify five workplace attributes that predict whether employees will perceive their organizsation as toxic; namely: a culture that is disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive. 

Murthy also highlights the daily stress that affects the health and performance of the country’s workers, including long working hours, daily commutes, heavy workloads, limited autonomy, low wages, and having to work multiple jobs. 

“Elevated stress hormones disrupt sleep, increase muscle tension, and impair metabolic function. Stress can increase one’s vulnerability to infection, the risk of diabetes, and the risk for other chronic health conditions. In fact, chronic stress has also been linked to a higher risk of developing diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. Such stress can also contribute to mental and behavioural health challenges, including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and substance misuse, and can have negative impacts on the mental health of the children and families of workers,” he writes. 

Additionally, the document takes into account the difficulty workers experience when trying to balance the demands of work and their personal lives, positing that the conflict between the two can magnify the experience of psychological stress and lead to unhealthy dietary habits, smoking, overuse of medication, alcohol and substance abuse, as well as causing relationship problems at home and at work. 

The way forward: Five essentials for workplace mental health and well-being

“The Framework can be viewed as a starting point for organisations in updating and institutionalising policies, processes, and practices to best support the mental health and well-being of workers… The Five Essentials can guide leaders, managers, and supervisors, as well as empower workers, to identify and communicate about priority organisational changes needed,” the US Surgeon General’s office writes. The five essentials outlined are: protection from harm, connection and community, opportunity for growth, mattering at work, and work-life harmony.

First, do no harm

Beyond merely protecting workers from physical harm by proving appropriate health and safety gear, the document also addresses psychological health and safety, noting that “when workers feel psychologically safe, they speak up without the risk of being punished, retaliated against or humiliated, and without fear of these risks.” Leaders are also advised to pay attention to the potential for workplace violence or threats of violence, which are disproportionately experienced by women, putting both their physical and psychological safety at risk. 

Two additional components of protecting workers from harm, according to the document, are ensuring that workers get adequate rest and access to mental health support: “Employers should review benefits packages and provide comprehensive health care coverage that includes access to mental health and substance use care and treatment.” 

Organisations are further advised to make confidential mental health care more easily accessible by facilitating access to both on-site and off-site after-hours care, encouraging time off for mental health care, and supporting access to quality and affordable mental healthcare services. 

Create an environment of connection and community

“Belonging is the feeling of being an accepted member of a group, or of connectedness given one’s interpersonal relationships. Fostering a sense of belonging and connection within the broader communities they are a part of has the potential to improve the health and well-being of workers and communities, and the prosperity of organisations themselves,” the document states. 

This “essential” is split into three components, the first being the creation of a culture of inclusion and belonging. Practical applications could include explicit support for unions, cooperatives, as well as socially inclined associations. The second component would be for leaders to proactively cultivate trusted relationships among workers, as well as between leaders and workers, so they may better understand one another holistically rather than seeing each other as skill sets.

To achieve this the document recommends leaders listen to workers’ concerns as well as explain key organisational decisions to them. They are also encouraged to create and model opportunities for workers to share important moments from their daily lives. The last component takes into consideration the changing nature of work, which now includes increased remote and hybrid work, as well as various part-time arrangements and encourages an active fostering of collaboration and teamwork by providing tools for work-related and non-work connection.

The autonomous worker and work-life harmony

“Organisations must see workers not only for their work roles but as whole people. They may have many needs, roles, and responsibilities outside of work, whether it is time needed for routine physical and mental health care, an unexpected family issue that requires urgent attention, or for regular time and space for rest, exercise, educational pursuits, and hobbies,” the framework states.  

To move towards achieving that elusive healthy balance between work and personal life, the framework largely recommends a move towards greater flexibility and autonomy, such as allowing workers greater “control over how, when, and where work is done [to] mitigate work and life conflicts, engender more trust in workplaces and co-workers, and improve health.” 

Additionally, schedules should be more flexible and predictable, as workers who are subject to irregular schedules are more likely to experience psychological distress as well as poor quality of sleep. The country’s organisations are also encouraged to increase access to paid leave, sick leave, and medical leave. 

The framework emphasises the importance of respecting boundaries between work and non-work time, quoting a study done among Australian universities that found that staff who were expected to respond to messages after work hours reported “higher levels of psychological distress and emotional exhaustion, including headaches and back pain, than groups whose supervisors did not [expect them to respond to messages after work]. 

“Workplace leaders and supervisors across all organisational units can establish policies to limit digital communication outside of work hours, such as after a specific evening hour and on weekends.”

Make work lives matter and create opportunities for growth

The last two essentials of the US Surgeon General’s framework address the common human need for dignity and meaning, as well as the importance of a learning accomplishment. Beyond merely providing a living wage, employers are urged to engage workers in workplace decisions, such as involving them in developing “organisational mission statements, values, goals, and objectives.” Additionally, it is important to actively build a culture of gratitude and recognition, by making “workers feel seen, respected, needed, and valued.” When it comes to learning and growth, this need not be limited to skills that are directly related to their occupation and the company, and employers are encouraged to also support workers’ non-work interests. 

The data says…

Admittedly, some employers may be concerned about how this will affect the bottom line. Taking this into consideration and drawing on prior research, the US Surgeon General writes: “Decades of research have also shown that prioritising and investing in efforts that address workplace well-being can have significant returns impacting the bottom line. 

“Workplace well-being efforts have notable effects on organisational costs — for example, those associated with reductions in absenteeism and annual health care claims. Organisations that focused on worker well-being have also reported higher productivity and retention rates.” DM/ML


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