23 Nov

A Framework Creates a Vessel, But Who Holds the Rudder

I’m thrilled to see the Surgeon General’s new workplace well-being framework. The Framework defines five “essentials” and certainly without these essentials as a foundation a workplace has little chance to provide for the well-being of its teams.

5 Essentials for Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing: Protection from Harm, Opportunity for Growth, Connection & Community, Work-Life Harmony, Mattering at Work, Worker Voice and Equity

Essentially, a bad workplace offers up an emergency life raft full of holes to those trying to survive. And we clearly know the absence of these essentials has massive ramifications on productivity, recruitment, and retention.

As with many aspects of workplace culture, some have hard costs like providing living wages, paid family time off, and training. Many other aspects of the Framework cost little to nothing and are about establishing cultural norms showing a commitment to well-being. In a metaphorical sense, the Framework’s approach establishes a safe vessel in which we can work.

The Framework doesn’t go so far as to drive home some of the deeper impacts of how well-being is a precursor to high-trust cultures and high-performing teams. After all, he’s a Surgeon General, not the Czar of Culture.

But in today’s climate, with workplaces trying to do more with fewer people and a decline in engagement at work, a focus on well-being can serve many of the same purposes.


1. Put Ribs in the Boat

The ribs in a boat provide stability and protection from the battering of turbulent seas. Ribs are a combination of intrapersonal traits, like leadership grit and perseverance, and interpersonal in the form of supporting workplace relationships and a diverse crew.

2. Row in the Same Direction

Trust is again intrapersonal and interpersonal. Does your team have the abilities needed? Are they committed to the task at hand as a team? It takes time to build trust within a team—and get them to put aside their own needs and ego so they can start rowing in the same direction.

3. Give the Vessel a Rudder

Think about rowing for a moment. You’re generally facing away from the direction you’re heading. Do you trust where you’re going though you can’t see what’s ahead?

Depending on where you’re sitting in the vessel, you may or may not see patterns of cohesiveness in the team or the contributions of others. The Captain can see the efforts of their entire crew, hold course amid swirling seas, and make course corrections (as necessary) when peril is nigh.

But if your leadership’s approach is to run “a tight shipwreck” with chaos, conflict, and fear as core values—you’re running the risk of the modern-day mutiny of low engagement and poor retention. As the Framework points out:

“The most effective leaders express compassion, empathy, and generosity; communicate openly, often, and clearly; and practice human and wellness-centered leadership by recognizing the connection between individual strengths, growth, and organizational change.”

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being 2022

So walk the talk of effective leadership and building a high-trust team… or be ready to walk the plank if morale gets too low.

To get everyone rowing in the same direction:


Anthony Poponi is a happiness expert, energetic professional speaker, workplace consultant and founder of Focus on the 40 programs and resources. He specializes in putting joy in our workplaces and in our communities through workshops and keynotes that leave his audiences buzzing. Being a hard act to follow on stage is always his goal.

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