Wellness·5 min read

COVID's Impact on Mental Health In The Workplace, According To The US Surgeon General

A woman at her laptop resting her head on her wrist
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
October 27, 2022

Your workplace probably looks a lot different than it did back in 2019. In some ways, that’s probably good (hi, favorite sweatpants). And in others, it might not be (hi, burnout). Because the pandemic changed a lot about our mental health and the workplace. See: Great Resignation and quiet quitting

And according to US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, Americans are in the middle of a mental health crisis. And work — aka the place where you spend most of your time — can play a large role. So our “Skimm This” podcast team sat down with Dr. Murthy to talk about the state of mental health in offices (and Zooms) across the country. And what the government is doing about it. 

How bad is mental health in the workplace?

According to new data from the Office of the Surgeon General, 84% of Americans who responded to a recent survey said at least one workplace factor had a negative impact on their mental health. And 81% wanted to look for jobs that prioritized their mental health and wellbeing. While the pandemic shares a lot of the blame, Dr. Murthy said it wasn’t what started the crisis. 

“I've been very concerned about the overall mental health and wellbeing of our country,” he said. “We have been struggling during this pandemic for sure, but with mental health, our struggles began even before the pandemic.”

To combat the issue, the Surgeon General’s office recently put out new guidelines for offices and workplaces. They highlight the "Five Essentials for Workplace Mental Health" to best support the mental health of their employees. 

So, what are the Five Essentials for protecting mental health in the workplace?

According to Dr. Murthy and the Surgeon General's Office, your workplace should be offering: 

  • Protection from harm. “People in the workplace want to be physically and psychologically safe,” said Dr. Murthy, “But they also want to have access to mental health support while they're there.” This pillar also includes promoting diversity, making sure employees can get adequate rest (hi, PTO), and normalizing support for mental health. 

  • Connection and community. “It turns out that having strong social connections [and] a sense of community in our workplace is incredibly important and is a buffer to stress,” he said. Think: Joining the company book club or going to happy hours. 

  • Work-life harmony. “That means paid leave, flexibility in schedule, [and] respecting work-life boundaries,” he said. Read: Taking mental health days, being able to go to doctor’s appointments without stressing about missing work, and not answering work emails after hours

  • Mattering at work. “And that's not only about expressing gratitude, but it's giving workers a voice at the table when decisions are made,” he said. Also a part of this: Providing a living wage. 

  • Opportunities for growth. “Making sure that we have chances to learn, grow, train, [and] develop [in the workplace] is absolutely essential,” said Dr. Murthy. Think: Access to training or mentors to help you strengthen your skills and move up within your company.

Sounds great. How do we implement these?

It’s a team effort, according to Dr. Murthy. “There is an important role for the workplace, but others have a role to play here too,” he said. “It requires all of us in society — government, workplaces, educational institutions, private citizens — to all ask what can we do to help address mental health.” 

One way the federal gov is helping: investing in and expanding access to mental health care. “By helping invest in the workforce, in telemedicine, using technology to make care available at a distance,” he said, “this can help workplaces as well to make those options even more readily available to their workers.”

So what can I do to change the mental health culture in my workplace?

Even if you don’t sit in the C-suite of your company, Dr. Murthy said there are still ways you can make a difference: 

  • Be a positive leader. “If you're a middle manager in a company, you have folks whose lives you impact,” he said. “In that group, you have the power to make changes. How you foster community, how you help people know they matter, how you provide the kind of feedback that helps people grow.”

  • Talk about mental health with your coworkers. “If you're a worker who's impacted by what the folks above you do, you can share this kind of framework with them and ask them if these are important to them as well, if they find that these Five Essentials are present in their workplace,” said Dr. Murthy.

  • Offer feedback to your manager. If you know that your workplace is lacking some (or all) of the Five Essentials, Dr. Murthy suggested asking your manager about how they can start implementing them. 

PS: For more on our conversation with Dr. Murthy, listen to the interview below.


Taking care of your mental health is more than bubble baths and long walks. It’s also about having the ability to adjust your work schedule, take paid leave, and be a part of a safe and inclusive work environment.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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