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Toxic Workplaces Are Bad for Mental and Physical Health, Surgeon General Says


The U.S. surgeon general is telling Americans for the first time that disrespectful or cutthroat workplaces could be hazardous to their health.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s office—which is more often associated with warnings about nicotine, Zika and the Covid-19 pandemic—issued a guidance Thursday outlining how long hours, limited autonomy and low wages can affect workers’ health and organizational performance. Chronic stress disrupts sleep, increases vulnerability to infection and has been linked to conditions ranging from heart disease to depression, the document said, citing research from the American Psychological Association and a Stanford University psychologist.

“Toxic workplaces are harmful to workers—to their mental health, and it turns out, to their physical health as well,” Dr. Murthy said.

The surgeon general’s guidance on the role of the workplace in well-being comes as many workers report work stress and difficulty concentrating. Meanwhile, companies have stepped up spending on mental-health and well-being benefits in recent years. 

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said workers are asking what they will sacrifice for their jobs.


Susan Walsh/AP

Recommendations in the surgeon general’s release include asking workplace leaders to listen to workers about their needs, increasing pay and limiting communications outside of work hours. A mentally healthy workplace, according to the framework, includes growth opportunities, work-life balance, community, protection from harm and employee influence on workplace decisions.

“People are asking themselves what they want out of work,” Dr. Murthy said. “They’re also asking themselves what they’re willing to sacrifice for work, and the fundamental questions are reshaping people’s relationships with the workplace.”

The statement comes as several million people, many of whom are women, lacking a college degree and working in low-paying fields, are expected to remain out of the labor force indefinitely, researchers say. About 80% of the roughly 11,300 workers surveyed between 2020 and 2021 by Mental Health America said that work stress affects relationships with friends, family and co-workers. While 46% of respondents said in 2018 that they had trouble concentrating at work, 65% did in 2020 and 71% did in 2021. The survey cited the pandemic as one potential contributor to this shift.

Alexia Rowe, 25 years old, works at a box office in Cambridge, Mass. Earlier this year, when a show was rescheduled, she called ticket holders to share the news. A patron began screaming at her, Ms. Rowe said. The next morning, she felt a wave of anxiety. 

A manager allowed her to take a break from making calls, she said. 

“If I leave this position,” she said, “I’m not going to find a manager that’s like her.”

Of more than 2,000 workers surveyed by the American Psychological Association in April and May, 18% described their workplace as somewhat or very toxic, and 30% said they had experienced harassment, verbal abuse or physical violence at work, including from customers.

Companies have been channeling more resources toward employee mental health. The 372-employee software company Kajabi asks employees regularly whether they have energy for family time after work or if they feel their workload is in line with their level and skill set. Samantha Matthews, vice president of people operations, said between the last quarter of 2021 and the second quarter of this year, responses trended negative. 

Kajabi, which is based in Irvine, Calif., hired about a dozen people to teams that were understaffed, Ms. Matthews said. The company also spent about $17,000 in one quarter on wellness benefits, including an expanded employee-assistance program offering three free therapy sessions and seven weeks of courses from an outside vendor related to mental wellness and burnout. 

Managers also encourage employees to take paid time off after big projects launch, she said. 

“People are adults,” she said. “They take the time that they need, and they’re here when they don’t need it.” 

Forty percent of 563 companies with at least 100 employees and $1 million in annual revenue surveyed by the benefits-consulting firm NFP in February and March spent between $201 and $600 per employee on well-being, a category including programs such as mindfulness workshops and office fitness challenges, in 2021. 

The surgeon general recommended that employers provide access to mental-health care as part of benefits packages, but the guidance goes beyond specific services and links broader aspects of work, such as pay and autonomy, to well being. 


Do you work in a mentally healthy workplace? What makes it that way? Join the conversation below.

“When I talk to employers, they all acknowledge that mental health and well-being are top concerns of theirs,” said Ron Goetzel, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This has come up into the C-suite, more so than ever before.” 

Dr. Goetzel said employers are motivated to pay attention to these issues if they can’t fill jobs, adding that the costs of prevention are small compared with treatment. 

Paige Kerr, an office manager in Bensenville, Ill., juggled a heavy workload earlier this year. Her company was getting acquired while she was working through a custody dispute for her young son, and she called in sick several times. Feeling disengaged was unusual for Ms. Kerr, 27, who said she rarely took time off.

“I was putting more effort into not doing the work, versus just doing it,” she said.

In September, her manager told her he felt her performance had diminished, and that her negativity affected colleagues. He urged her to take a week of paid time off. Ms. Kerr turned off her Slack notifications and, after a few days, stopped checking email. 

She registered her son for daycare and worked through court paperwork—things that, after a long day of work, had been last on her list. 

After the vacation, she said, it no longer felt “like the world’s caving in.” She said she has felt more optimistic and engaged at the office.

Write to Lindsay Ellis at [email protected]

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