We live in a complex world, and, increasingly, we’re learning that public health must embrace that complexity to have a real impact. Targeted efforts to address issues like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and addiction aren’t yielding the results they should, according to Dr. Vivek H. Murthy ’03, MD ’03, 19th surgeon general of the United States. In an online conversation with Professor Marissa King, Murthy called for multifaceted approaches to health that move upstream from specific conditions to consider lifestyle, environmental, and societal components. “I believe that that's where we're going to see the biggest return for our investment when it comes to addressing public health threats,” he said.
For example, it’s widely understood that what we eat plays a significant role in our health. But, Murthy said, “when healthy choices are available, affordable, and convenient, people choose them.” So rather than just repeating encouragements to eat healthily, Murthy sees value in seeking solutions to access, cost, and opportunity barriers. “Prevention is where the return is for healthcare dollars spent, yet that’s not what we pay for,” he said.
King raised the issue of how technology and social connection interact. “At the same time as our ability to maintain larger and larger numbers of connections is increased, we see more people who report they have no high-quality or high-trust connections,” she said. “We know those types of connections translate into more productivity at work, increased health and well-being, and higher levels of happiness.”
Murthy has worked to raise awareness of the numerous negative impacts of loneliness. “If we have developed all this technology that can connect people, yet people are feeling more disconnected than ever before, clearly there’s more we need to do to address that challenge,” he said. “This is not just a challenge for the workplace but for society more broadly.”
Murthy called for a focus on overall well-being, particularly in the workplace. Ignoring workers’ wellbeing can lead to chronic stress, which has a range of physical, emotional, and mental consequences. And encouraging a focus on well-being, he noted, is likely to show returns in engagement and productivity.
Successfully fostering well-being will require pushing back against the idea that emotions don’t have a place in the office, Murthy said. “If we want to figure out how to use emotions to enhance our productivity, our performance, and ultimately and most importantly, our fulfillment in our lives, we have to make a cultural shift to recognize that emotions are not a weakness, but they are in fact an extraordinary source of power and healing.”
In the Office of the Surgeon General, he said, he recognized that despite a shared commitment to the mission and professional respect for colleagues, many people felt isolated and lonely at work. “We wanted to help people get to know each other on a deeper, more substantive level,” Murthy said. “All of us as human beings have a fundamental need to be known and to understand each other.”
Rather than extend a long workday with after-hours events, Murthy introduced a new tradition: at each weekly staff meeting, one person would spend five minutes showing some pictures and explaining a dimension of themselves that wasn’t part of their daily work. “Those five minutes were so rich because we learned about each person in their own terms,” he said.
The sense of connection and inclusion quickly made the meetings very popular, Murthy noted. “We don’t need to completely overhaul the workplace. Small meaningful changes can have an impact and will set a tone on the culture’s priorities.”
We already know enough about the benefits of well-being to justify such programs, Murthy said. At the same time, he noted, there’s a need for broader efforts. More investment is needed to understand the basic biology of well-being.
With science showing the value of trust, connection, and engagement, there’s an argument for workplaces that adapt to the complexities of real life. “We've spent a fair amount of time thinking about financial incentives, but there are other incentives that are equally, if not more powerful,” Murthy said. “Optimizing for emotional well-being in a company can be a distinct advantage both for recruitment and organizational competitiveness and performance.”