U.S. Surgeon General’s novel prescription? Healthier jobs and workplaces
Although the still-chugging U.S. economy is providing workers with more employment opportunities than many economists expected, it is always tough to leave a job, even with the highly publicized trend of “quiet quitting” supposedly in full force.
Still, no less an authority than Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, has warned Americans that too many of their workplaces put their health and mental health at risk. He has called on employers large and small to practice the Golden Rule, better share companies’ good fortunes, and to improve regular folks’ work-life balance. Stat, a science and medical news site, quoted Murthy’s statement on toxic workplaces and needed changes, thusly:
“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. 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.”
It may seem that one of the nation’s leading medical authorities has strayed far afield in taking on corporate America and urging titans of business to be more humane with those who toil far closer to the ground. But Stat has reported bullet points from the report put out by Murthy, citing research evidence, that shows why he says he had to speak out about U.S. jobs, workers, and workplaces:
- “76% of American workers said in 2021 that they suffered from one or more symptoms of a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, up 17 percentage points from 2019;
- 81% of workers will seek future employment where mental health is supported;
- 84% of workers said they felt the negative effects of at least one workplace factor, such as poor communication or lack of work-life balance, on their mental health”
Bloomberg News says the surgeon general’s prescription for worker stress and malaise, with its requisite graphics and tabbed summaries of its key takeaways, should not be surprising, especially to anyone who has heard business school buzz and “calls to action’ on improving crucial employee productivity and satisfaction:
“The [Murthy] report recommends that employers also provide workers with a living wage, without requiring them to negotiate it for themselves. The report also stresses that employers should invest in their workers and their careers, which runs counter to the ‘quiet firing’ trend that can occur when companies drive employees out through neglect or denying them the opportunity to grow their careers.”
Stat further elaborates on the surgeon general’s high-minded call for workplace reforms, reporting:
“The surgeon general’s framework for supporting workers’ health starts with calling on companies to protect employees from physical and psychological harms — a goal that encompasses providing basic safety from injuries and harassment as well as ensuring that workers have time off for adequate rest. Prioritizing work-life balance, autonomy, and opportunities for growth are also cited in the framework as necessary components of workers’ well-being …”
While corporate skeptics may scoff at the surgeon general’s call for changes at work as being too pie-in-the-sky at a time when enterprises across the board are maximizing profits and ignoring criticisms that they are fueling a debilitating inflation that afflicts so many, it was just three years ago that the Business Roundtable shocked uber capitalists with a published redefinition of corporate purpose.
Instead of asserting, as so many executives have done in theological fashion, that businesses exist solely to maximize profits and shareholder returns, the Roundtable — which says it represents CEOs of leading organizations with 20 million employees and more than $9 trillion in revenues — put out a new statement endorsed by 181 chiefs. The New York Times reported its thrust:
“[C]ompanies should no longer advance only the interests of shareholders. Instead, the group said, they must also invest in their employees, protect the environment, and deal fairly and ethically with their suppliers. ‘While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders,’ the group … said in a statement. ‘We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.’”
What has happened to those high-minded sentiments? Or to the (empty) salutes during the coronavirus pandemic to the valiant labor of “essential” and low-paid workers? Or to every-evening universal cheers — which have turned to jeers, and worse — for health staffers’ risky, 24/7 campaign to defeat the coronavirus? And just how did hard-earned, much praised pay raises for workers — including nurses, grocery clerks, and truck drivers — suddenly turn into evil drivers of inflation (while nose-bleed CEO pay hikes did not)?
In my practice, I not only see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the clear benefits they can enjoy by staying healthy and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is, according to research conducted in pre-coronavirus pandemic times, fraught with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses.
Our jobs, as the surgeon general rightly points out, play a huge role in overall lives. Research long has shown that life’s major stresses — with big effects on our health — include divorce, death, and job loss. And we have much work to do to ensure that workplaces neither are toxic or that they expose regular folks to toxins or other hazards. A great democracy like ours also cannot go down an unsustainable path with a virtual aristocracy of the super wealthy, extremely privileged, extraordinarily protected (with their health and security) — and all the rest of us.