Surgeon general, National Academy of Medicine release frameworks on supporting workers' mental health

Warning of widespread wellness concerns in the wake of COVID-19, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) released reports this week detailing how nationwide employers and healthcare stakeholders, respectively, can work to fortify the mental health of their workforces.

Just over three-quarters of the country’s workforce report at least one symptom of mental health while 84% say that conditions at their workplace had contributed to at least one mental health challenge, according to survey data cited in the surgeon general’s framework, released Thursday.

Employer support for mental health is also playing into workers’ job search priorities, with 81% of workers saying they would be looking for a workplace that supports mental health going forward, per the report.

“A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and healthier communities,” Murthy, who raised a similar alarm back in May, said in a press release. “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.”

The 30-page framework outlines five workplace mental health “essentials” and several recommendations on practices employers should adopt to bolster each component. These include:

  1. Protection from harm, which could be supported by ensuring adequate rest or operationalizing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility values
  2. Connection and community, which could be supported by cultivating trusted relationships or creating cultures of inclusion
  3. Work-life harmony, which could be supported by increasing access to paid leave or flexible, predictable scheduling
  4. Mattering at work, which could be supported by providing living wages or by engaging workers in workplace decisions
  5. Opportunities for growth, which could be supported by providing quality training or clear and equitable advancement pathways

“This Surgeon General’s Framework shows us how we can start,” Murthy said. “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.”

Murthy’s call to action should resonate among healthcare employers that for the past few years have seen workforce departures accompany reports of increasing stress and burnout among clinicians and other healthcare workers.  

Just a day prior to the surgeon general’s framework, NAM released its own national plan to support the well-being of the healthcare workforce.

The plan highlights symptoms of burnout reported among 54% of nurses and clinicians, 60% of medical students and residents, and 61% of pharmacists.

NAM warned that this negative trajectory would continue and, through its national plan, placed the onus on leaders across healthcare providers, public health organizations, payers, educators, health IT providers, government and other industries “to help drive policy and systems change.”

The group also stressed that the issue of workforce burnout won’t be a quick fix.

“Much like how the national movement to improve the safety and quality of care delivery has gained ground over the last 20 years, improving health worker wellbeing will be a long journey,” NAM wrote in its national plan. “While there is no finish line, every step makes a difference in improving the environment for our health workforce and brings us closer to experiencing a health system where both health workers and patients thrive.”

NAM’s 88-page plan lists and elaborates on seven priority efforts for stakeholders:

  1. Create and sustain positive work and learning environments and culture
  2. Invest in measurement, assessment, strategies and research
  3. Support mental health and reduce stigma
  4. Address compliance, regulatory and policy barriers for daily work
  5. Engage effective technology tools
  6. Institutionalize well-being as a long-term value
  7. Recruit and retain a diverse and inclusive health workforce

The recommendations are endorsed by 30 healthcare industry organizations—including the Joint Commission, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges—and follow a draft plan that received nearly 2,000 comments during public feedback.