An FDA Perspective on Improving Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing

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An FDA executive discusses the Surgeon General’s recommendations for promoting mental health and wellbeing for employees in the workplace.

Workplace mental health and wellbeing is a critical priority for public health, explained Hong Vu, PharmD, MS, GWCPM, RAC, BCACP, supervisory regulatory health project manager, FDA, during a presentation at the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) 2024 Annual Meeting & Exposition in Orlando, Florida. For individual workers, workplace wellbeing has cascading impacts for their health and the health of their families, which can subsequently have an impact on organizational productivity and the US economy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there were increased rates of anxiety, depression, social isolation, job burnout, and insecurity, according to Vu. Additionally, there were also changes during the pandemic in how the country approaches the nature of work and how individual workers approach the relationship they have with their jobs. With this shift, the link between work and health became far more evident, explained Vu.

“Currently, there are over 160 million people who are part of the US workforce today. A recent survey [showed] that about 61% of workers report at least 1 symptom of a mental health condition, with over 70% reporting that that they are moderately or highly concerned about their workplace wellbeing, and 84% saying that their workplace conditions have contributed to at least 1 mental health challenge,” Vu said during the APhA session. “Similarly, over 80% responded noting that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.”

Workplace mental health and wellbeing is a core priority of the US Surgeon General, so the office of the Surgeon General has developed a framework for organizations to follow to support worker mental health and wellbeing. The framework includes 5 workplace essentials based on human needs, with the central core principles of worker voice and equity, according to Vu. The 5 workplace essentials of the Surgeon General include protection from harm, connections and community, work-life harmony, mattering at work, and opportunity for growth.

“The most important asset in any organization is people. By choosing to center their voices, we can ensure that everyone has a platform to drive the 5 essentials,” Vu said during the session. “Overall, this framework offers a foundation and resource that can be used by any workplace of any size across any industry.”

The first of the 5 essentials is protection from harm, which includes prioritizing workplace physical and psychological safety. According to Vu, people cannot perform well at work if they feel physically and psychologically unsafe.

“When employees feel psychologically safe, they speak up without fear of being punished, retaliated against, or humiliated,” Vu said during the session. “[Feeling safe can also] enable adequate rest. Insufficient rest, whether it is from a lack of sleep, a lack of quality rest, or long work hours, can lead to stress, anxiety, pain, and health conditions…which can impair one's physical, emotional, and mental health.”

Vu noted that to promote psychological safety at work, it is valuable to normalize and support the need for mental health and offline rest as needed. Additionally, Vu explained it is very important to operationalize diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility norms, policies, and programs, which can support a sense of physical and psychological safety for employees.

The second of the 5 essentials is connections and community, which includes creating cultures of inclusion and belonging, cultivating trust, and fostering collaboration and teamwork, according to Vu. The third essential is work-life harmony, which includes providing more autonomy over how work is done, making schedules as flexible and predictable as possible, increasing access to paid leave, and respecting boundaries between work and non-work time.

The third essential is work-life harmony, which includes providing more autonomy over how work is done, making schedules as flexible and predictable as possible, increasing access to paid leave, and respecting boundaries between work and non-work time. Image Credit: © Zoran Zeremski - stock.adobe.com

The third essential is work-life harmony, which includes providing more autonomy over how work is done, making schedules as flexible and predictable as possible, increasing access to paid leave, and respecting boundaries between work and non-work time. Image Credit: © Zoran Zeremski - stock.adobe.com

“Most importantly, set boundaries between work and non-work time, such as by not emailing your employee at 9 pm and expecting them to respond by 10 pm,” Vu said during the session.

The fourth essential is mattering in our work, which can be accomplished by providing a living wage, engaging workers in workplace decisions, building a culture of gratitude and recognition, and connecting individual work with the organizational mission.

“Sometimes just telling your staff thank you can build a tremendous connection with that individual,” Vu said during the session.

Vu explained further that the final essential is the opportunity for growth, which can be accomplished through offering quality training, education, and mentoring. To this end, it is valuable to foster clear, equitable pathways for career advancement and ensure relevant reciprocal feedback. Vu noted that a culture of reciprocal feedback can be established in the workplace by allowing employees to provide input when they are given suggestions or recommendations.

Vu noted that some signs and symptoms that a worker may be suffering from a short- or long-term mental health crisis include eating or sleeping too little or too much; pulling away from people or usual activities; feeling confused, forgetful, or on edge; yelling or fighting with coworkers; having mood swings that cause problems in relationships; and experiencing an inability to perform daily work tasks, such as attending and engaging in meetings.

“This list is not comprehensive but is intended to provide a few examples to look for in someone who's suffering a mental health crisis. At the FDA, we have numerous healthy behavior programs to assist staff in ensuring work-life balance, and the first is we prioritize efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we have a DEI committee,” Vu said during the session. “Within my office, the Office of Medical Policy, we have a weekly meeting that’s an hour long where staff can have the opportunity to join if they wish and provide recommendations. It’s a platform to provide an exchange of information and allows staff to be comfortable speaking their minds at these sessions.”

Vu noted that the FDA also provides resources for employees in the areas of childcare and parental support, such as in adoptions, adult care and aging, fitness and weight loss, budgeting for children’s college expenses, and pet care.

“Lastly, we have a nursing mother program where we have specific rooms that provide private areas for breastfeeding mothers to nurse and care for their babies. We also have a childcare center on site, as well as the Federal Financial Credit Union,” Vu said during the session. “We also have an FDA mentoring program, which is a basic program that a lot of staff participate in every year as it provides staff of all different levels with the type of mentorship that they need, and we have a leadership development program that can issue certifications and help people build their leadership skills, as well as help people build the foundation to transition to being supervisors.”

REFERENCE

Vu H. Workplace Well-Being An FDA Employee’s Perspective. American Pharmacists Association 2024 Annual Meeting & Exposition; March 22-25, 2024; Orlando, Florida.

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