The Surgeon General Has Something to Say About Humanizing Work

We can’t change the world this week, or even this year. But we can make small changes in our sphere of influence, and then another one after that, and start incrementally improving to where, one day, as the surgeon general said it: ‘Workplaces Can Be Engines of Mental Health and Well-Being.’ That’s a future worth working towards.

In this episode, Richard and Peter look into a recent report from the US Surgeon General on “Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being” as well as the business media’s puzzling reporting on it. Spoiler alert: the Surgeon General has a lot to say about why making work fit humans matters and the mainstream business media can’t make sense of it.

Resources from the Episode

Surgeon General Report Overview
Surgeon General Full Report
WSJ Article
Self-Determination Theory
Drive by Dan Pink
Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi & Lindsay McGregor

Episode Transcription

Richard Lawrence

Welcome to the Humanizing Work Mailbag, where we answer questions from the Humanizing Work Community!

Peter Green

If you have a question you’ve been noodling on, email us at, and we’ll see if we’ve got a good answer for you. And, before we jump into today’s episode, just a quick reminder to rate and review the Humanizing Work Show in your podcast app, or if you’re watching on YouTube, please subscribe, like, and share today’s episode if you find it valuable to you. Your help spreading the word is super meaningful to us!


In this episode, we’re taking a look at a new report from the US Surgeon General on Workplace Well-Being. We learned about the report from our friend Michael O’Neill at the University of Iowa, who forwarded a Wall Street Journal article about it to our mailbag email to get our thoughts. (We’ll link to both the article and the Surgeon General’s report in the episode page for this episode).

First, the highlights from the report: The report starts by looking at the problem. They highlight recent surveys indicating mental wellness at work is a major risk factor for both businesses and for society at large. Among the evidence they cite, 84% of workers in one survey said their workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge. And elsewhere, in another survey 81% of workers reported that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.


Then getting into the recommendations from the report, the surgeon general has created a framework for workplace mental health and well-being. The framework focuses on five areas, and these will sound pretty familiar to listeners of the show.

First, protection from harm, including physical and psychological safety and security. The second component of the framework is around connection and community, including social support and a sense of belonging. The third area is what they call work-life harmony, which I like a lot better than “work-life balance,” which we hear often, and the way it’s often described in that Wall Street Journal article, including autonomy (having choices in when, how, and where work gets done), and flexibility in how we do our work. The fourth area of focus is what they call “mattering at work,” which includes a sense of dignity and meaning, or understanding the positive impact of the work we do. The fifth area is opportunity for growth, including both learning and accomplishment.

You’ll see lots of links back to the research on engagement and motivation that stems from self-determination theory and the books that describe it like Drive, by Dan Pink and Primed to Perform by Doshi and McGregor; but it’s striking to see the surgeon general prioritizing this effort as a response to the mental health crisis many people are facing. The website that the surgeon general shares and the article are beautifully designed and concise, and they paint a picture of what it means to humanize work and why it is so important; both for an organization’s success and as an ethical and civic duty to society.


Back to that Wall Street Journal article, which is interesting in its own right as an artifact: The article nicely summarizes the problem, and highlights that most businesses are aware of this challenge and recognize they need to do something. But then, when it describes the steps that businesses are taking, we had a bit of a record-scratch reaction. Wait, did they actually read the report that they’re reporting on?

The article itself seems to miss the key points of the Surgeon General’s recommended framework. For example, they summarize it this way:

“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.”


And then the examples of companies “doing something about the problem” mostly illustrate things like special time off work when work is really stressful and perks like free counseling, meditation training, and fitness challenges. Nothing related to actually building meaning, collaboration, autonomy, or growth into the work itself.

I think there’s a bit of a healthcare analogy here. With the epidemic of things like cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the United States, the surgeon general has clear recommendations about fixing those problems through better diet, exercise, and sleep. And yet the healthcare industry primarily focuses on prescribing medications that manage the symptoms of those diseases rather than actually treating the root causes. It’s like companies are doing the same thing with this report: throw out some inexpensive treatments like classes and vouchers for counseling and check the box on the mental wellness initiative.


So the question we are pondering is “why doesn’t the business press write about the actual solution, which involves changing the structures, incentives, and behaviors in organizations to create things like those five characteristics in the surgeon general’s framework? There are many examples of companies doing the right things here. Some are even cited as what they call “practice examples,” sort of like case studies, at the end of the surgeon general’s report.

We do our best to spread the word on great practices in organizations we work with and become aware of, and I know that we are far from the only ones doing this kind of thing. So why aren’t these the ideas making it into the business press and, further, into the expected approach in most businesses?


Perhaps it’s just a matter of time. It may be that we will need a generational change in leadership for these ideas to fully take root, the same way that things like accounting practices, efficiency improvements, or innovation approaches have taken a generation or two to become “standard practice” in most business. Maybe the crisis hasn’t reached a breaking point yet, but man does it seem close, based on the initial data shared in this report.


One reminder for me here, that I can forget sometimes, is that some of those things that are obvious to us as people who work close to this kind of humanizing work movement or the agile community, are still invisible to most of the business world. We still have so much work to do to get this message of what work can be like out into the world.


The great news is that the data is becoming clearer and clearer, even making its way into the government, a place that, at least historically, has not been described as a fantastic place to work. With all of the research beginning to converge on these clear patterns for how to shape organizations that both increase mental well-being and result in better outcomes, we can influence our own work by better aligning with those patterns.

We may not be able to change the world of work this week, or even this year. But we can completely and totally make small changes in our sphere of influence, and then another one after that, and continue incrementally improving to where, one day, as the surgeon general said in the report, “Workplaces can be engines of mental health and well-being.” To me, that’s a future worth working toward.

Thanks so much for joining us for this week’s episode. What are you doing to increase mental well-being for yourself and your co-workers? Let us know in the comments.

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