Have a toxic workplace? It may harm physical, mental health - report

A new US surgeon general report points out how much a toxic workplace can harm the physical and mental health of workers and proposed a framework to fix it.

 Low wages, workplace disrespect, no career advancement and employee dissatisfaction have helped contribute quiet quitting, which has become popular on TikTok (Illustrative). (photo credit: PXHERE)
Low wages, workplace disrespect, no career advancement and employee dissatisfaction have helped contribute quiet quitting, which has become popular on TikTok (Illustrative).
(photo credit: PXHERE)

Do you have a bad boss at your job? Do you have to work in a toxic work environment? According to a new report from the US surgeon general, all this may be taking a significant toll on your well-being and mental health.

The report addresses crucial labor issues that have been boiling over in recent years, having been released at a time when greater focus has been placed on workplace toxicity and employee burnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the surgeon general report notes, there are numerous laws in the US to protect workers and give them certain rights such as overtime regulations, minimum wage and protections from discrimination. However, to quote the report, "While Federal and state laws represent a minimum floor of protections for workers, organizations and employers can do more."

"While Federal and state laws represent a minimum floor of protections for workers, organizations and employers can do more."

US surgeon general report

How to tell if you have a toxic workplace: What stresses out workers and what does that cause?

The surgeon general listed a number of possible stressors that can severely impact worker health and the overal performance of an organization.

 A man clutches his head as he suffers from a headache and stress (Illustrative) (credit: MAXPIXEL) A man clutches his head as he suffers from a headache and stress (Illustrative) (credit: MAXPIXEL)

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Long commutes
  • Limited autonomy
  • Low wages
  • Multiple jobs
  • Unpredictable schedules
  • Heavy workloads
  • Long work hours
  • Lack of work-life balance
  • Lack of recognition
  • Lack of opportunity for advancement

However, these are just a few examples. Overall, the report presented five specific attributes that can be used to predict if workers see their workplace culture as toxic. These five are:

  • Disrespectful
  • Unethical
  • Abusive
  • Cutthroat
  • Non-inclusive

Many workers also point to an inability to maintain a proper work-life balance due to the heavy demands of their jobs.

And this constant stress can have serious negative harms on both mental and physical health, having activated the "fight or flight" response in the brain.

The negative effects of constantly elevated stress hormones include, but are not limited to:

  • Increased vulnerability to infection
  • Higher risk of diabetes and other chronic health conditions and autoimmune diseases
  • Higher risk of high blood pressure
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Metabolism impairment
  • Increased muscle tension
  • High cholesterol
  • Higher risk of obesity and unhealthy dietary habits
  • Higher risk of depression and anxiety
  • Higher risk of substance abuse
  • Higher risk of suicidal ideation
  • Higher risk of cancer

All of these issues in the workplace aren't exclusive to the US, either. For example, according to one recent report, close to half of all Israeli workers work far more hours than they should, putting in extra hours into their free time in order to manage their heavy workloads. 

"Israelis work far too much and it hurts our economy and quality of life,” said Amit Ben-Tzur, CEO of the Arlozorov Forum, who highlighted the “unhealthy balance between work time and home, family and leisure time that existed in Israel even before the coronavirus,” and noted that “in many workplaces employees are expected to be available 24/7. This is not what normal labor relations look like - it is not healthy for the workers and their families and it is not healthy for the Israeli economy which suffers from low productivity, partly because of excessively long working hours.”

Did workplace stress and worker health become worse due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Stress in the workplace is nothing new and many of these stressors are preexisting. However, as the report notes, COVID-19 made everything worse. 

Throughout 2021, workers worldwide expressed higher stress rates than the year before. A US survey showed that a vast majority (76%) of workers across the board had at least one symptom of a mental health condition. In addition, an even wider majority (84%) said that at least one factor in the workplace had harmed their mental health.

The pandemic was also a big part of this, having contributed to severe economic instability and, as a result, insecurity for food, income and housing. Most workers saw the COVID-19 pandemic as having harmed their mental health and nearly half saw it as having harmed their physical health. 

All of this has also severely harmed organizations' bottom line, as poor worker mental health or physical health can lead to decreased productivity. 

According to the report, a happier workforce is a more productive and successful workforce

How can employers make a healthy workplace for their workers?

According to the US surgeon general, a healthy workplace that guarantees healthier, happier workers consists of five key components, which they listed in a new framework. 

These are:

  1. Protection from harm: Prioritizing workplace safety, allowing for adequate rest and normalizing and supporting mental health.
  2. Connection and community: Creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, fostering collaboration and teamwork and cultivating trusted relationships.
  3. Work-life harmony: Making schedules more flexible and predictable, increasing paid leave access, respecting boundaries between work and non-work and providing more autonomy on how work should be done.
  4. Mattering at work: Engaging workers in workplace decisions, building a culture of gratitude and recognition, connecting individual work with the organizational mission and providing a living wage rather than a minimum wage.
  5. Opportunity for growth: Providing relevant and reciprocal feedback, offering quality training and education and providing clear paths for career advancement.

This framework, the surgeon general says, itself is based on decades of research and the statements of workers, unions and industry sectors from sectors across the board.

The means of adopting each point presented, as well as guides on how better to understand what these points are, their benefits and how to implement them, are further explained in the report, which also links accompanying documents on each point.

Some of these points also bring up things that have become more relevant in recent years, such as the desire to allow for more remote work options and allowing workers more control over their work and schedules, as well as allowing for more paid leave options such as sick leave and maternity leave, as the US is the only advanced OECD economy that doesn't require these to be granted to all workers as a matter of policy.

The specific point for providing a living wage also reflects the fact that the minimum wage in the US is not a livable wage, being unable to meet the cost of living in many parts of the country. According to one study cited by the report, "every 1$ increase in the minimum wage of US states could reduce the suicide rate among people with a high school education or less by nearly 6%."

"Every 1$ increase in the minimum wage of US states could reduce the suicide rate among people with a high school education or less by nearly 6%."

US surgeon general report

To better illustrate how to put some of these things into practice, the US surgeon general also provided a number of examples, albeit not as an endorsement and only as a starting point. These include Gap, Kent State University and DTE Energy.

Employee dissatisfaction: How worker behavior is changing due to the pandemic

This also comes at a time when renewed focus has been placed on workers and how they are responding to dissatisfaction with their situations.

The great resignation, for example, saw widespread upheaval by millions of workers in the US leaving their jobs for greener pastures. 

Another trend that has cropped up recently is quiet quitting, the idea of doing the bare minimum at work and no longer striving to put in more effort than normal since workers feel undervalued and unappreciated.

Another trend, this one the inverse of the previous one, is quiet promoting, when an employee is given more responsibilities but no new title or increased pay, so they are expected to do more than their job title and contract specify.

This, in turn, has fueled even more dissatisfaction.

Rather than just helping the physical and mental health of workers, the surgeon general's report may also prove to help boost employee satisfaction across the board - if employers choose to listen to it.

Zachy Hennessy contributed to this report.