man stressed at work

The well-being of public workers in an age of anxiety

By Mark Funkhouser

How are your local government’s employees doing? If you don’t know the answer to that, you should.

We’ve been paying a lot of attention to the Great Resignation in state and local government and the challenging position public sector HR directors find themselves in as they struggle to fill empty slots. The latest MissionSquare Research Institute report says that half of all state and local workers are considering leaving their jobs, a finding that prompted lead author Rivka Liss-Levinson to warn that we are “teetering on the brink of a public sector workforce crisis.”

The right answer to this crisis, however, shouldn’t focus solely on hiring more people. We need to pay just as much — or more — attention to investing in the ones who are still on the job. Meredith Reynolds, Long Beach, California’s deputy city manager for recovery, wrote recently for Engaging Local Government Leaders on all the attention we are giving to the Great Resignation with these words of caution: “When a large number of employees exit the organization, we tend to forget to care for the folks who stay — those watching the exodus of their colleagues while shouldering the work that still needs to be done despite the vacancies.”

When I call for investing in the workers who are still on the job, I’m not just speaking of salaries, although those undoubtedly could be higher. I’m talking about investing in our workers’ well-being. Since the beginning of the pandemic, public sector workers have consistently reported stress, burnout and anxiety as the top three emotions they felt about their jobs. In fact, workers say they feel more stress now than they did at the beginning of the pandemic, when there was much more fear and uncertainty about COVID. 

To some degree, those emotions reflect what so many of us have felt over the past two years. It’s no wonder that new data shows Americans are more miserable than we’ve been in at least a half-century and that the latest Menino Survey of Mayors found that more than half of mayors identify mental health and trauma as a chief concern.

We may not be able to undo the outside forces that cause trauma and stress, and we certainly can’t stop a pandemic. But what public employers can do for their colleagues is provide the social and emotional support that fosters a healthy work environment.

Think about the average case manager or city clerk. They essentially spend their days trying to fix stuff for people who are mostly annoyed at the system but direct that ire onto the public employee in front of them. Then there are the folks who’s jobs changed dramatically during the pandemic — teachers, community outreach directors, dispatch operators — who are navigating a hybrid world of virtual and in-person engagement that leaves them feeling alone and more mentally taxed than ever at each day’s end.

Local government may be about providing services, but everything centers on community. And to strengthen our communities, we need to take better care of each other. I’ve long held that leading a team of people effectively means doing so with compassion and understanding. People have to know you care about them and believe in the collective mission. In the many years I was a government auditor, I made it a point to have a conversation with each of the office’s 15 or so staff members every month or so. I had three questions: How are you doing? How are we doing? What should I be paying attention to?

Rather than trying to get back to a pre-pandemic status quo, public managers need to be thinking about how to create an engaging, inclusive and supportive environment in this new workplace normal.

The American Rescue Plan Act specifically allows governments to use federal fiscal relief funds for employee retention. When it comes to this new normal, think about the tools available to your workers and what you can do to make their jobs more enjoyable. If you haven’t invested in a management program that makes it easier — and perhaps more fulfilling — for employees to engage with each other and with constituents, now is the time. Using ARPA funding for IT modernization, for example, can empower local agencies to support a remote and hybrid workforce and streamline workflows and collaboration. Just as importantly, more user-friendly and efficient systems can free up time to engage employees in more meaningful, high-value work. That is a powerful retention and recruitment mechanism. 

Think about the demographics of your workforce. The pandemic has not affected everybody equally, and women of color have borne a disproportionate share of its devastation at work and at home. In many places, these women make up the largest contingent of government employees and often are dealing with more stressful situations away from work than at their jobs. Do you have an employee assistance program? If so, make sure your staff knows how to access it and give them the space to do so. If not, that’s another investment to make in your workforce.

Another way managers can facilitate a more inclusive work environment is by creating and communicating a clear path for upward mobility for every position. They also can consider the needs of single parents by offering flexible work hours and helping with the cost of child care. While these things might not look like mental health efforts, creating a safe and supportive workplace goes a long way toward making employees feel cared for and valued.

Governments have spent hundreds of millions of federal relief dollars on responding to the mental health needs of the community at large, and rightfully so. But don’t forget to save some of that money for the needs of your own employees. It’s an investment that will pay dividends for years to come.

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