Bosses should fix toxic workplaces, surgeon general says. Here’s how.

REUTERS/Hannah Beier
Empty cubicles in the office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 14, 2021

If you think your workplace is toxic and hurting your physical and mental health, you are not alone.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy warned Thursday that abusive or cutthroat workplaces may be harmful to human health. And he laid out a road map detailing how employers can shift their workplace culture and practices to better protect people’s mental and physical health.

“The link between our work and our health has become even more evident,” Murthy said. “More and more workers are worried about making ends meet, dealing with chronic stress, and struggling to balance the demands of both work and personal lives.”

It’s not only about mental health: Chronic stress can increase people’s risk for physical conditions including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And when workers’ health declines, that can affect workplace productivity and ingenuity, Murthy said in the introduction to the report.

The Surgeon General’s Office – citing the Great Resignation, “quiet quitting” and reported depression or anxiety among American workers – said the recommendations aimed to seize on the pandemic-era opportunity to reexamine how we work. Murthy said the pandemic-sparked “reckoning” should lead employers to turn workplaces into “engines of well-being.”

Here’s what you need to know about spotting toxicity and protecting your mental and physical health, and what employers should do.

– How to recognize a toxic workplace.

Five qualities can predict whether people believe their workplace is toxic, according to the surgeon general’s guidance: The culture is disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat or abusive.

And if you think your workplace is toxic, you’re usually right, said psychologist Amy Sullivan, director of engagement and well-being at the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute. “We know, as people who work in that environment, if it doesn’t feel safe or mentally healthy,” she said. “It really is a gut feeling.”

People can usually confirm that you-know-it-when-you-see-it feeling with co-workers, too, since it’s possible that large groups will be complaining, said Dennis Stolle, senior director of the American Psychological Association’s office of applied psychology. Stolle worked on the APA research that was cited in the surgeon general’s guidance.

There are also physical red flags. Sleeplessness, anxiety, dry mouth, increased blood pressure and fatigue can be among signs that something’s off. Indications that the nervous system’s fight-or-flight response has been turned on – a pit in the stomach, butterflies in the stomach, heart racing – are important to notice, Sullivan said.

People sometimes feel the symptoms most outside work, when they get home. “They can’t unwind, they can’t let go of work thoughts, they can’t sleep or they’re dreading getting up and going to work the next day,” Stolle said.

But is it a toxic workplace or just stress about the world? Stolle recommends thinking about when you feel your best and when you feel your worst. If work dominates your “worst” column, it’s at least part of the problem, he said.

Whether a workplace qualifies as truly toxic, many workers suffer from chronic stress regardless – thanks to “heavy workloads, long commutes, unpredictable schedules, limited autonomy, long work hours, multiple jobs, low wages” and various other challenges, the surgeon general said.

– What can workers do?

People struggling with negative work environments should recognize that it “is not them,” Sullivan said. And the more you can separate your emotions from your work – meaning your health and well-being isn’t “emotionally tied” to your job – the better.

If you feel stressed at work, experts recommend trying some common and tested strategies, including taking a walk or briefly leaving the workplace; taking a break for something you enjoy, such as a cup of coffee or tea; and talking to a trusted co-worker who may be going through similar issues. You also can practice mindful breathing and make lifestyle changes, such as to your diet or exercise. Try different things until you find the self-care practices that work for you, the experts said.

Stolle tells employees to take three steps: care for themselves, care for their co-workers and communicate with their bosses. Asking co-workers how they’re doing and talking about stressors help create a culture where people care about each other. And telling employers both what’s already working and what you need can start a productive dialogue, he said.

These strategies could improve your well-being at and outside your workplace, but the responsibility to fix the work culture sits with the employer, not with employees, experts said. Quick fixes, such as stress-management programs or yoga at work, won’t solve a nationwide problem.

“Wellness programs can often feel like we are blaming the worker – when it is the workplace and the way that work is organized today that is actually the source of the problem,” said Erin L. Kelly, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, who studies work and employment. “We want to look at how we can change the workplace, not just focus on changing the worker by encouraging exercise or meditation.”

– What should employers do?

The surgeon general recommends five “essentials” for workplaces to ensure employee mental health and well-being: protection from harm, connection and community, work-life harmony, mattering at work, and opportunity for growth.

The goals align with some of the top reasons American workers have left their jobs: A Pew Research Center survey of people who quit in 2021 found that they reported low pay, lack of opportunity for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work as the top three issues, reported by more than half of those who quit.

The surgeon general’s guidance lays out a framework for organizations to attain those five “essentials.”

Among the recommendations for employers are to increase access to paid leave and pay workers a “living wage,” which the guidance did not define, though it noted that nearly a third of American workers makes less than $15 an hour. They also should offer training and mentoring, foster inclusion and equity, and give workers more autonomy over “how, when, and where work is done.”

Employers should look at such changes as an ongoing culture shift, not single steps that can be checked off and forgotten, Stolle said.

“We need the employers to use [their] power and to take action,” he said. “If we don’t have that, then change isn’t going to come.”