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Workplace Well-Being, Reimagined

We have the opportunity and the expertise to transform strategies for improving mental health in higher ed.

By Dean Ellen J. MacKenzie

Last year, Apple TV had a hit with the new show Severance, a sci-fi drama with an unusual take on office life.

At Lumon Technologies, employees undergo a “severance” operation to have their work memories separated from their nonwork memories. Their two selves know nothing of each other, with their dual consciousness making the shift as they ride the Lumon elevator to and from the office. Eventually, the workers rebel, desperate to know their other half.

It’s a fantastical plot, but it speaks to a bigger truth—our work experiences are inextricably part of us and have an impact long after business hours. Similarly, our nonwork experiences bring a valuable richness and diversity to the work environment. 

Many of us who work in higher education know too well the pressures that our careers put on our well-being. Faculty play diverse roles—researcher, teacher, administrator—requiring a range of skills for which we are not always well prepared. From always thinking about the next grant application and publishing the next paper to ensuring students are getting the very best education and helping them with their own private struggles, we face work stressors that aren’t easily left at the office. (And our home worries don’t stay at home.) Staff in academia are also asked to take on multiple roles and often face uncertainties in job security if their position is dependent on external grant support. 

The pandemic put a fine point on these stressors, blurring work and home life and increasing the need to learn new technologies and provide more flexible learning opportunities among a growing student body. A Chronicle of Higher Education survey on COVID-19’s impact on faculty showed more than two-thirds of respondents were struggling with increased workloads and a deteriorating work-life balance. More than half of faculty were considering retiring or changing careers. Our staff colleagues deal with similar challenges, often with less flexibility in their work life. Staff challenges are often overlooked in studies of the academic work environment. 

Of course, stress is not unique to higher education. And given that 63% of Americans participate in the labor force, the workplace represents a platform and an opportunity for innovative mental health initiatives. We know these efforts would be good for both health and business. For example, depression leads to more than 200 million lost workdays and costs the U.S. economy over $210 billion annually. 

Given that 63% of Americans participate in the labor force, the workplace represents a platform and an opportunity for innovative mental health initiatives. We know these efforts would be good for both health and business.

At the Bloomberg School, we have an opportunity to leverage our expertise in workplace mental health and well-being to develop better strategies and interventions for higher education faculty and staff, especially in graduate schools. And because there are challenges in our academic environment that overlap with those in other industries, we can respond to our internal needs and make a broader impact on our nation’s workers.

The potential is clear. Now, we must plan a path forward. As the only school of public health with a Department of Mental Health, we have a unique ability to define both the problems and potential solutions. Since 2014, our School’s Institute for Health and Productivity Studies has bridged academia, the business community, and health care policy worlds. With key support from The Luv u Project, the Institute has undertaken new efforts in recent years, including the Carolyn C. Mattingly Award to honor organizations that apply evidence-based practices to address workplace mental health and well-being and serve as exemplary role models.

And in 2021, we established the Johns Hopkins POE Total Worker Health Center. A NIOSH-funded collaboration with the departments of Mental Health and Environmental Health and Engineering, the POE Center examines the psychosocial factors, organizational conditions, and environmental exposures that affect worker mental health and well-being to affect change through research, education, outreach, and evaluation. 

With these organizations, the School is launching an initiative to research and adopt best practices in mental health and well-being for faculty and staff in graduate education so we can better serve our students and execute on our vision for a healthier world. We’ll begin by conducting an environmental scan of our peer institutions and hosting a national summit June 27–28. Based on what we learn, we will create a Bloomberg School–specific blueprint and system for tracking success metrics. 

The School has one change already underway to support a healthier work community: We are reimagining our physical workspace by renovating our current Wolfe Street building and designing a new, connected building that nurtures collaboration and community. This effort is a key piece of our long-term, holistic strategy to improve the work environment. 

Our School famously protects health and saves lives—millions at a time. That vision serves as our guidepost, but we must provide our own people with the support they need to succeed.

Our work is demanding, but it should not break us down. There is no magic elevator that leaves the stress of our work life behind, and shutting our office door at the end of the day won’t keep it out, either. If we want to make the world and its workplaces healthier, the best place to start is right here at the Bloomberg School.