November 3, 2022

5 pillars of workplace wellbeing: All you need to know about the US Surgeon General’s framework

November 3, 2022
Kate Searight
Brand and Social Manager

5 pillars of workplace wellbeing: All you need to know about the US Surgeon General’s framework

The US Surgeon General has issued a call to arms for workplaces: show your workers that they matter, that their work matters, and build the culture they need to flourish. Do this, and we’ll create healthier, more productive, and successful organizations and communities.

In case you were in any doubt, workplace wellbeing is fast becoming a political and international priority. Hot on the heels of ISO 40053 and the WHO’s landmark guidelines, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 21st US Surgeon General, announced their groundbreaking Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing Framework on October 20, 2022.

In short, the Surgeon General is telling employers that the workplace has a significant impact on employees’ mental and physical health. And they’ve given us an impressive, science-backed framework for taking action.  

The message is clear: your workforce’s wellbeing relies on you 

While this framework is a call to action and focuses on the opportunities waiting on the other side, it clearly outlines the social determinants of health and the role workplaces play in a growing wellbeing problem. 

We know that chronic stress and toxic cultures are taking their toll on the workforce; heavy workloads, ‘always online’ expectations, unpredictable hours and low wages are just some of the work-dependent challenges that employees manage daily.

And while these conditions were there long before the pandemic began, the last two years have worsened many of them:

• 76% of US workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition.

• 84% said their workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge.

• 81% reported they’ll be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.

We need a change. 

And, according to the Surgeon General, workplaces need to lead it –  and have the most to gain by doing so.

Workplaces have the power to transform wellbeing 

Workplaces can be engines of mental health and wellbeing”

Wellbeing and the workplace are deeply connected. 

But for years, we’ve been getting the connections the wrong way round.

This framework asks us to reframe our assumptions – revealing something simple but game-changing:

Our wellbeing is shaped by work

At its heart, this framework takes an old idea – that our health at work depends on what's happening at home –  and adds another dimension: the workplace also plays an essential part in our overall wellbeing. 

And that can go two ways: when workplace wellbeing is managed badly (or not at all), it harms both your people’s health and business performance. When it’s done well, and with the right framework, people and their organizations flourish.

Our workplaces should be shaped by the voices of workers

Typically, we see workplace wellbeing strategies prescribed as a ‘top down’ solution, looking at the voices of leaders and high-level business demands. Here, however, the government is asking organizations to put the voice of the worker at the center.

“The most important asset in any organization is its people. By choosing to center their voices, we can ensure that everyone has a platform to thrive. Sustainable change must be driven by committed leaders in continuous collaboration with the valued workers who power each workplace."

The message is clear: your workforce’s wellbeing relies on you

Ensuring workplace wellbeing requires an intentional, ongoing effort by employers and leaders across all levels, with the voices of workers and equity at the center.

To carry this change, the Surgeon General has shared a landmark guide to help workplaces ‘become engines of wellbeing’. 

It’s a five-point framework, founded in extensive research and underlined by key “human needs”. When knit-together, they’ll give leaders and organizations the core elements they need to direct company-wide change. 

Here’s what it looks like:

The Five Essentials for Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing, from the US Surgeon General's framework.

1. Protection from harm

Safety and security are among the most fundamental of human needs. But goes well beyond providing a first aid box. The most basic provision of ‘health and safety’ should go further than physical health – actively protecting and promoting fundamental human rights, mental health and dignity. 

That means protecting employees from harassment, effective manager training – and supporting financial security.

Prioritize workplace physical and psychological safety.

Enable adequate rest.

Normalize and support focusing on mental health.

Operationalize Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) norms, policies, and programs.

2. Connection and community

No person is an island, and neither is a workplace (even if you’re freelancing). By building belonging and community into our working cultures, we create subtle but powerful networks that support employee wellbeing. Moreover, strong communities can buffer stress, enhance joy, and strengthen teams.

Create cultures of inclusion and belonging.

Cultivate trusted relationships.

Foster collaboration and teamwork (especially in hybrid, flexible working world).

3. Work-life harmony

See workers as whole people! We’re more than our job – even when we’re at work.

Instead of asking folks to suppress their personal lives at work, allowing space for it gives employees the freedom and confidence to flex their strengths in the workplace. Similarly, protecting non-work time fundamentally helps people to show up and thrive during working hours. 

Increase employees’ control over how, when, and where they work.

Make schedules as flexible and predictable as possible.

Increase access to paid leave —sick leave, paid family and medical leave (including paid parental leave), and paid time off for vacation.

Respect boundaries between work and non‑work time.

4. Mattering at work

Instead of valuing the work being done, value people doing it.  Knowing that you matter – that your work matters – is shown to be a powerful factor in lowering stress. And, crucially, it builds a protective anchor of purpose, dignity and meaning against depression or low mood.

Unsurprisingly, actions are far more powerful than words here: show employees they count by asking for feedback. Engage with their ideas as much as you expect them to engage with the overall mission.

Plus, your workers know the heart of your business more intimately than any consultant, investor or advisor – you can only gain from listening to them. 

Provide a living wage. 

Engage workers in workplace decisions.

Build a culture of gratitude and recognition.

Connect individual work with the overall mission.

5. Opportunity for growth

Create more space for growth, and employees will grow professionally, socially, and emotionally to fill those opportunities. 

Opening up opportunities is as much about training employees and creating clear career pathways, as it is about training their managers in how to build those frameworks within their teams.  

Just as with ISO 40053, the emphasis here is on continuous, company-wide  training, tools and resources. That’s how workplaces can promote learning and advancement.

Offer quality training, education, and mentoring.

Foster clear, equitable pathways for career advancement.

Ensure relevant, reciprocal feedback.

“Organizations can create more opportunities for genuinely engaging with their workers, especially in positive, collaborative, and outcome-oriented ways. This should include equipping leaders at all levels with the training, tools, and resources they need to engage and lead others.”

“It’s a must-have”

If you take away one thing, it’s this: this is not ‘just another health and safety framework’ – it’s a powerful move from the US Surgeon General’s office to put mental health at the heart of workplace culture, and, in return, give organizations the research, agency and tools to make it happen.

“Mental health in the workplace:
It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.”

Human Resources Leader and Business Consultant, quoted in the US Surgeon General’s Workplace Wellbeing Framework 

“This framework is great to see. It highlights exactly why we need to make workplace mental health a priority and the need to put the worker voice at the center. Addressing the workplace environment is a necessity and now really is the time”

Dr Kate Daley, Head of Psychology at Unmind