The US is experiencing unprecedented rates of stress and mental illness. Even the American Psychological Association acknowledges the country is “facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”1
Pro-Black organizations can serve as powerful guides for businesses that are considering how to enact the surgeon general’s recommendations for workplace mental health.
In this context, businesses are increasingly grappling with how they can support their employees’ mental health, while the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has released—for the first time ever—a report that outlines a framework for how workplaces can be “engines for mental health and well-being.” The 2022 report, “The US Surgeon General’s Framework for Mental Health and Well-Being,” highlights several actions that businesses can take to foster mental health. These actions are well-aligned with the longstanding efforts of many Black-led organizations that are working to create better systems for health so that everyone can thrive.
Pro-Black organizations can serve as powerful guides for businesses that are considering how to enact the surgeon general’s recommendations for workplace mental health. This is especially true with regards to Black-led organizations that utilize a healing-justice framework to promote mental health, for their efforts take the surgeon general’s framework further. Such organizations not only acknowledge the generational harm caused by centuries of systemic oppression but also create avenues for communities to heal from it.
Creating a world that is conducive to everyone’s mental health requires valuing and centering the leadership and experience of BIPOC communities. For too long, our systems have upheld—and continue to uphold—systemic racism and white supremacy, resulting in marginalization and undue harm to communities of color. Collectively, we must understand how social systems perpetuate oppression—with harmful mental-health repercussions—and we must create better systems of support, a process that cannot be achieved without a commitment to solidarity.
The State of Mental Health in the US
According to APA’s 2022 report, Stress in America, over 75 percent of adults in the US experience stress levels that negatively impact mental and physical health.2 Stress-induced physical ailments, such as headaches and fatigue, are commonplace and disrupt daily tasks. Nearly one-third of adults reported that “most days they are so stressed they cannot function.”3 Chronic stress is often a precursor for mental illness, and more than 50 percent of adults report stress-related feelings of anxiety and depression.4 Unfortunately, we see similar trends among youth in the US.5
However, while healthcare is an important factor, it is not the sole tool for addressing mental illness. Mental health is shaped by social determinants of health—including where people live, learn, play, age, and, also, where they work. As such, businesses can play a major role in responding constructively to the US’ increasing mental health challenges. However, doing so requires most organizations to undergo major shifts in culture and practice.
The demand for such shifts is obvious. Increasingly able to identify toxic work culture and its negative impact on mental health, many Americans are prioritizing working in environments that support their mental wellbeing, hence the “great resignation.” In fact, according to findings from a recent APA survey of 1,500 employees across for-profit, nonprofit, and government sectors, more than 80 percent of adult workers in the US will look for workplaces that are conducive to their mental health.
As recent trends highlight, businesses can also benefit from workplace cultures that support mental health.6 The International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health notes that workplace environments contribute to lost productivity by creating stressors such as demanding job requests, lack of autonomy, and unexpected increases in work hours.7 This data sets the precedent for creating a cross-sector strategy that normalizes workplace environments that are conducive to employees’ mental wellbeing.
How the Surgeon General’s Framework Aligns with Pro-Black Efforts
A helpful guide for businesses looking to improve workplace culture, “The US Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being” highlights five key areas for organizations to prioritize:
- Ensure protection from harm
- Foster connection and community,
- Promote work-life harmony
- Demonstrate that employees matter at work
- Create growth opportunities
Crucially, to create work environments in which everyone can benefit, a racial-equity lens must be applied across all five of these areas. In this regard, pro-Black institutions offer a path forward. Let’s look at how the report’s recommendations align with pro-Black efforts:
- Protection from harm by prioritizing workplace safety and security
With more than two in five workers reporting that workplace health and safety concerns increase their stress levels, the surgeon general’s report calls for employers to prioritize employee safety. Dr. Murthy outlines three key actions to protect and promote the physical and psychological safety of workers: 1) normalize and support mental health; 2) enable adequate rest; 3) operationalize policies and programs centered on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (termed DEIA).
Many pro-Black organizations are already leading efforts in these areas. For example, the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, a national training and movement-building organization, works to increase mental-health literacy—a key factor in normalizing mental-health support—while centering the voices and experiences of Black communities. Founded by Yolo Akili Robinson, BEAM’s mission is “to remove the barriers that Black people experience [while] getting access to or staying connected with emotional health care and healing.”8
BEAM’s work is in part accomplished through the Black Mental Health and Healing Justice Peer Support Training, which provides participants with introductory knowledge of mental-health issues, myths, and challenges in Black communities, connection to a supportive network, and foundational skills to offer peer support through a healing-justice framework. This peer-support training has reached nearly 1,000 wellness workers and community members in over 30 states, giving participants resources to better care for themselves and their communities.
Operationalizing the actions outlined by the surgeon general requires approaches that build inclusive environments that support everyone. To ensure worker safety, organizations must look inward and address systemic inequities that contribute to toxic work culture, generate undue stress, and lead to poor mental-health outcomes among all workers, and workers of color in particular. Engaging with the leadership of pro-Black organizations like BEAM can help ensure that any shift in workplace culture centers the voices of those who are often marginalized by the policies and practices these businesses are aiming to disrupt.
- Connection and community through cultivating a culture of belonging
Human beings need social connections. The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University notes, “People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression [along with] higher self-esteem, and greater empathy for others.”9 The reverse is also true: “low levels of social connection are associated with declines in physical and psychological health.”10
The surgeon general’s report urges employers to create opportunities for social connection and community among workers through three key actions: 1) create cultures of inclusion and belonging, 2) cultivate trusted relationships, 3) foster collaboration and teamwork.
BEAM is already doing this work, offering a model to other workplaces. The organization utilizes a healing-justice framework according to which individual health is dependent upon collective wellbeing. As such, it centers on interdependence and a commitment to honor all bodies. These values are foundational for creating cultures of inclusion and belonging.
BEAM also prioritizes cultivating trusting relationships and fostering collaboration. Through peer health training—one of the organization’s signature efforts—BEAM is building a national network of individuals equipped to provide mental-health support to their families and communities. The lessons learned from this work could serve as a foundation for workplaces seeking to create pathways for social connections.
- Work-life harmony through respect to integrate non-work demands
Toxic work cultures are widespread, they pose risks to our health and have detrimental effects on businesses. According to Murthy, “when the mental health of workers suffers, so does workplace productivity, creativity, and retention.”11 Researchers estimate toxic work culture costs employers nearly $50 billion per year and name workplace culture as the single best predictor of employee attrition. They have identified five workplace qualities that contribute most to a toxic culture: if a workplace is disrespectful (failing to show consideration for the dignity of others), non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, or abusive.
The surgeon general uplifts work-life harmony as the antidote to toxic work cultures. Four key actions for workplaces to take are: 1) provide more autonomy over how work is done, 2) make schedules as flexible and predictable as possible, 3) increase paid leave, 4) respect boundaries between work and non-work time.
As Dr. Murthy notes in the report,
The ability to integrate work and non-work demands rests on the human needs of autonomy and flexibility. Organizations that increase worker autonomy, or how much control one has over how they do their work, and whose workplaces provide greater flexibility, or the ability to work when and where is best for them, see workers who are more likely to succeed and retain staff for longer.
Businesses must understand and honor their employees’ experiences if they are to develop effective solutions to toxic environments. This also requires an understanding of how organizational practices perpetuate systemic racism and anti-Blackness and their subsequent impact on employees. Pro-Black organizations are working to develop new structures that center the values, needs, and voices of Black people, setting the standard for how to ensure that workers guide organizational practices.
An example of this work is BEAM’s Emotionally Intelligent Leadership Training, which helps organizations increase their capacity “to transform, reimagine, and refine organizational systems.” Building on the lived experience of its Black leaders, BEAM helps leaders to apply emotional intelligence in the workplace and create work environments that are conducive to wellness and advance organizational equity.
- Mattering at work to promote dignity and meaning
The fourth component of this framework centers on the importance of mattering at work. As Dr. Murthy writes:
People want to know that they matter to those around them, and that their work makes a difference in the lives of others. Knowing you matter has been shown to lower stress [and] risk for depression.…When the dignity of workers is affirmed and supported in the workplace, it enhances well-being.
The framework outlines four key actions that organizations can take to affirm that employees matter: 1) pay a living wage, 2) engage workers in workplace decisions, 3) build a culture of gratitude and recognition, 4) connect individuals’ work with organizational mission.
Systemic racism prevents workplaces from advancing cultures that promote dignity and meaning, breeding toxic work cultures. Racism at a systemic level manifest through discriminatory policies and practices that leave BIPOC workers out of workplace decisions and result in racial inequities across areas such as wages and promotions or recognition, making BIPOC employees less likely to feel valued as members of the team. In short, without intentionally advancing organizational equity, organizations cannot build inclusive cultures.13
Like BEAM, Race Forward is supporting organizations to radically shift their work culture with an eye toward advancing equity. This racial-justice nonprofit is working with institutions across sectors to transform their policies, practices, and cultures to build a “just multiracial democratic society,” providing a model for organizations seeking to enact the surgeon generals’ recommendations in a way that reaches everyone. They provide guidance and tools designed to help organizations operationalize racial-equity principles in all aspects of their work, including governance policies. Through these efforts, Race Forward is amplifying solutions that advance racial justice and create cultures of inclusion within organizations and across sectors.
- Opportunity for growth to create pathways for learning and advancement
The fifth essential component of this framework focuses on creating clear pathways for professional development and growth. The report outlines three key actions organizations can take toward this end: 1) offer quality training, education, and mentoring; 2) foster clear, equitable pathways for career advancement; 3) ensure feedback.
As with the other recommendations described here, businesses cannot fully actualize this vision—that is, in a way that benefits all employees and honors all cultural identities—without understanding systemic racism, the barriers it creates to learning and growth, and an organizational commitment to remove these barriers.
A Vision Moving Forward
In his report, Dr. Murthy challenges organizations to create a plan with all workers to enact the key components of his framework and reimagine workplaces as “engines of well-being.” I encourage you to consider how to operationalize this work and, while doing so, to look to models offered by pro-Black organizations that are demonstrating in their everyday work how to create workplace environments that prioritize safety, cultivate a culture of belonging while respecting non-work demands, foster a sense of dignity and meaning, and offer opportunities for growth.
Pro-Black organizations present a model in which everyone can benefit. After all, as NPQ contributor Dax-Devlon Ross notes, a pro-Black organization is “…not just a place where Black folks can thrive and be. It’s a place where all folks can thrive…”14