As the world has struggled the past three years to navigate a pandemic, it has brought to the forefront the critical importance of self-care, especially for those in the helping environment. Thinking about self-care and resilience, it is often easiest to focus on the individual and to make them solely responsible for their well-being. Historically, we have been told to rest more, eat healthy, exercise, and meditate as ways of taking better care of ourselves. While all of these can have a positive impact on our overall well-being, it does not factor in the important role that workplaces can have in impacting, either positively or negatively, our well-being. I have often heard the saying “workers don’t leave jobs, they leave supervisors” and while this is partially true, it does not consider the overall work environment as a contributor to an individual’s well-being.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, brought forth a model of workplace well-being and identified five key components necessary in a workplace for it to positively impact the mental health and well-being of employees. This model emphasizes the shared responsibility between the individual and the work environment for the wellbeing of the individual. This model highlights the need for healthy work environments as a top priority of his office.
While the components in this model are not new to many of us, it does bring them together in a way that allows us to consider their interactions and interconnectedness. Work environments can be assessed in each of these areas and plans developed to improve areas where change is needed.
Protection from both physical and psychological harm is one of the key components to a healthy workplace. This component has received considerable attention due to the number of incidents of workplace violence, but also as the awareness of the importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace has risen. The psychological safety of marginalized populations is critical in ensuring safe work environments. Organizations benefit from worker diversity, but also are responsible for ensuring the safety of diverse groups.
A second component, connection and community, ties into the DEI efforts by providing inclusive spaces for all workers to feel like valuable team members. Inviting diversity into the workplace is not enough, we must give a voice to those workers and work towards collaborative, trusting relationships. The challenges the pandemic has caused around building and maintaining relationships is enormous. While most of my coworkers are remote (myself included), we recognized early on the significant impact it would have on our lives. A group of us began meeting weekly early in the pandemic to stay connected. This was invaluable to me as a new employee at the organization. This is a great example of a workplace that provided us the opportunity to spend time meeting and our own personal responsibility to coordinate and attend the sessions.
A third component, work-life harmony has been explored and researched for decades. The pandemic has made it more challenging, as work was brought into our homes, in some cases for the first time ever. Flexible work schedules became necessary as parents navigated working from home and navigating online school with their children. A traditional schedule was not always feasible. While the need for flexibility was a must, it is now important to re-evaluate as the impact of the pandemic has changed. Even if workers remain at home, they may be back to a traditional work schedule, and it is unfair to expect responses to emails late in the evening. Now that children have returned to school, evening time is once again when families come together.
As mental health services are being used at unprecedented rates, the need outweighs the capacity of the current number of mental health providers. In helping professions, setting boundaries can be a challenge, as we are often more focused on those around us, who we perceive have a greater need than our own. Organizations can assist in setting boundaries and can partner with workers to determine healthy balances. During the pandemic, I found myself working additional hours at a part-time hospital job. I was able to maintain that increase in work for a while, but as the pandemic dragged on, I found it necessary to reduce my hours, as they were not sustainable indefinitely. It was a difficult boundary to set as the hospital’s psychiatric department was not fully staffed, and the need was greater than ever for social work resources. However, setting these limits allowed me to continue to work at a pace that is sustainable and allows me to provide the best possible services to patients.
The fourth component, mattering at work, may be the most challenging to accomplish. I grew up in a blue-collar home, where my dad worked to provide for his family, not necessarily for workplace fulfillment. This had a lasting impact on me as I developed my career and made changes to improve my job satisfaction. For me, and many others, earning a paycheck is only a part of what gives me job satisfaction. Gaining recognition and finding meaning in one’s work has gained importance. While earning adequate pay is important, many additional factors go into job place satisfaction and should not be overlooked.
The final component, opportunity for growth, encompasses personal knowledge enhancement, but also clear paths for career development and advancement. When employees feel “stuck” they are likely to be dissatisfied with their employment and are more likely to leave. If they do stay, they may disengage and work below optimal levels, both of which are costly to an organization. While there may not be opportunities within every organization for promotions, every organization can provide workers with additional education and opportunities for growth.
Again, much of the information provided in this model is not novel but putting it together and providing resources allows organizations to improve in each area. As we continue to navigate COVID-19 and its long-term impact, a partnership between organizational and individual efforts will be critical in maintaining healthy workplaces for those in helping professions.
The Surgeon General’s full report can be found here: https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/workplace-well-being/index.html. The site also has a variety of resources available to both workers and organizations to help move towards healthier workplaces.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Christy Collette, LMHC, is a Program Associate for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. In this capacity, she is coordinating the expansion of the Star Behavioral Health Providers into new states across the nation. SBHP trains civilian behavioral health providers to work with Service members, veterans and their families.