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Toxic workplaces can harm your physical and mental health, surgeon general says

Surgeon general on impact of toxic workplaces
U.S. surgeon general discusses impact of toxic workplaces on mental and physical health 06:39

Bad bosses and a cutthroat work culture can take a steep toll on employees' mental and physical health, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in a new report.

The findings, which may come as no surprise to many workers, are significant in that they are first time the surgeon general has explicitly linked job factors such as low wages, discrimination, harassment, overwork, long commutes and other factors to chronic physical health conditions like heart disease and cancer. Work-related stress can also lead to mental health conditions including depression and anxiety, according to the report. 

The report comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance into sharper focus.

Four-day workweeks becoming more common as employers test shortened hours 04:34

Perceptions "changed" by pandemic

Heightened public attention on employee well-being was spurred in part by the shift to remote work during the pandemic, which many Americans found allowed them to better juggle job responsibilities with demands at home. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work, and the relationship many workers have with their jobs. The link between our work and our health has become even more evident," Dr. Murthy said in a statement. 

In fact, the surgeon general's report concluded that when work and personal demands conflict, negative health outcomes ensue.

"These role conflicts can magnify psychological stress, increase the risk for health behaviors such as smoking, unhealthy dietary habits, alcohol and substance use, and medication overuse, and cause disruptions to relationships both at work and at home," the report found.

There are five components of a healthy workplace that drive worker well-being. They include what the surgeon general calls:

  • Protection from harm
  • Connection and community
  • Work-life harmony
  • Mattering at work
  • Opportunity for growth

Emphasizing those principles can help promote inclusion, fair wages and opportunities for advancement, among other benefits, according to the surgeon general's office. 

Embedding those values in a company's culture "will require organizations 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," Dr. Murthy said. "This may not be easy. But it will be worth it, because the benefits will accrue to both workers and organizations. A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and a healthy community."

Author Chloe Benjamin on creating a work-life balance 05:00

Good for business

The upshot for companies is that an emotionally and physically healthy workforce leads to better business outcomes. 

"In addition to the many impacts on the health and well-being of workers themselves, workplace well-being can affect productivity and organizational performance," the report concluded. "When people feel anxious or depressed, the quality, pace and performance of their work tends to decline."

Supporting worker health is also good for business, said Gabriella Kellerman, chief product officer at BetterUp, a corporate coaching platform. 

The unseen labor of women and moms in the home 07:18

"In this day and age, given the nature of work, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty from companies and the external environment that is inherently challenging to our mental well-being and role, and companies have a role to play in supporting their employees for moral reasons, but also because it's good for the bottom line of their businesses," Kellerman said. 

The surgeon general's prescriptions for a healthy workplace layout guidelines for employers to follow. 

"The fact that this is actually recommended by the surgeon general is extremely important as a statement," she added. "They are giving employers concrete recommendations on what matters most to support employees' well-being. Getting this granular and prescriptive is a new level of involvement, and of guidance, that is novel." 

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