OPM acting Director David Shriver, left, and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, right, discuss burnout among federal employees at an OPM event on May 9.

OPM acting Director David Shriver, left, and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, right, discuss burnout among federal employees at an OPM event on May 9. OPM

Surgeon general says telework’s flexibility should be balanced with purposeful connection to promote mental health

The nation’s top doctor urged federal bosses to better promote workplace social connections to counter the feelings of isolation that telework may induce.

Vivek Murthy said he wasn’t doing great after his first stint as U.S. surgeon general ended in 2017. 

“I was left without a community — work community — that I had come to know and really love. And I found that work to be really meaningful,” he said. “I had done a pretty horrific job of staying in touch with family and friends during my first term in office. And so I came out just feeling like, frankly, just profoundly alone and hollowed out in a sense.”

Murthy drew on that experience in a Thursday discussion about workplace mental health and well-being with Office of Personnel Management acting Director Rob Shriver. The nation’s top doctor, who has issued a report on the subject, explained how jobs can promote employee welfare rather than harm it. 

For instance, the surgeon general said the flexibility that telework provides should be balanced with purposeful team building. 

"The workplace can be a powerful engine for human connection. So creating opportunities for people to come back in person periodically to be able to build in-person connection [and] creating more intentional opportunities for people to be able to connect and learn about one another virtually — those become increasingly important when you're in a hybrid work environment,” he said. “Those relationships truly, truly do matter.”

Several Republican members of Congress have criticized what they consider to be the Biden administration’s too-lenient remote work policy, arguing it hurts productivity. However, the White House has also begun pushing agencies to bring employees back to the office

Murthy emphasized that these team-building efforts don’t need to take a lot of time or money. As an example, he said his team basically does “show and tell.” 

“We had a woman who everyone thought of as like the nerd in an office of nerds. We were all nerds, self-admittedly. What we didn't realize is — when she had a chance to share — she brought in pictures of her running, and we realized she was actually a really talented long-distance runner and had actually qualified for the U.S. Olympic team,” he said. 

After they started doing this activity, Murthy noticed team members helping each other out and gathering together more. He also finds value in linking an individual with people who their work helps.  

“When we go on the road and our team is able to meet people in communities across America who have benefited from our work…it makes such a difference. Because it shifts your focus from you to someone else, and it actually is very empowering,” he said. 

Murthy also encouraged bosses to intentionally create mentorship and social connection opportunities with younger workers, who the surgeon general’s own data show are experiencing significant increases in certain mental health disorders. 

"A generation or two generations ago [we] took it for granted that people just can roll into an office and they build relationships and everyone works together and everything is hunky dory. But that's not an assumption that we can make anymore," he said. "It's not because young people are intrinsically deficient in some way compared to prior generations. It's because, I think, we've done them a great disservice by essentially having these [social media] platforms which have sucked them in and have had some negative effects on their development, and we put no guardrails around them from a safety perspective."

The surgeon general in 2023 published an advisory that stated social media could have benefits for some children and adolescents but that there are “ample indicators” of risk of harm to children and adolescents’ mental health and well-being. The document also urged more research on the topic. 

Information about OPM’s employee wellness programs can be found here.