Stress On the Job: U.S. Surgeon General Issues Warning

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The link between stress and the workplace may be as old as human history, but in a changing world, several factors are increasing workplace stress to levels that are having a serious impact on personal wellness. 

So say health professionals, including the American Psychological Association and Dr. Vivek Murthy, the United States Surgeon General. Dr. Murthy recently issued a warning about the hazards of work-related stress. He says that high-pressure, low-paying work environments contribute to a variety of mental and physical health problems.

Premier Health Now spoke with psychiatrist Christina Waite, MD, Medical Director of Inpatient Psychiatric and Consult Services at Miami Valley Hospital, to learn more about the roots of toxic work environments and how to recognize and deal with them.

The Stress Of Doing More With Less

According to Dr. Waite, there has been a marked increase in reported physical and mental health problems as workers have borne increased demands in a tightening economy and a significant workforce reduction since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A toxic work environment is basically a negative situation or negative behaviors that create a lack of trust and high stress levels and behaviors, like infighting and discrimination,” Dr. Waite says. “So, it can be negative behaviors or just a negative environment, and this becomes a norm, or the culture of the workplace.”

This results in an environment where people do not feel psychologically safe. Workers may feel ignored, punished, humiliated, or minimized when it comes to sharing ideas and raising concerns or objections.

What’s the Answer?

“Burnout has become a serious problem and will only change when the situations change and people take control,” says Dr. Waite. “It depends on if an employee can move on into a more satisfying environment or if they can change things where they are. It may help if they can start to get some boundaries around their work time or maybe get more mentoring. Or maybe they simply have to change jobs.”

Dr. Waite encourages employees to consider seeking out advice from a trusted friend, family member, or professional counselor who can provide objective feedback to help them make wise decisions for their future that protect their mental and physical health.

Thankfully, she says, this growing crisis is beginning to get the attention of some employers who are seeking ways to improve workplace culture with tools such as anonymous employee surveys and providing workers with greater access to employee assistance programs.

“This is very big topic, but I think it's great that people are talking about it and that there's so much more interest about it,” says Dr. Waite. “I think it's going to help everyone in time. Some good things have come out of the pandemic.”   

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Christina Waite, MD

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