At an April press conference, VA Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs expressed alarm that the agency’s workload is putting employees’ well-being to the test.
As Federal Times reported, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) processed about 1.7 million claims from veterans in 2022, its highest total ever. The VBA expects to surpass that number this year, due largely to the expansion of benefits resulting from last year’s passage of The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (The PACT Act).
“I am concerned about ensuring we take care of our employees, because when we take care of them, they can take care of veterans,” Jacobs said. “So, we are actively looking at making sure we are providing the support our employees need.”
Some recent research suggests that the type of job stress that VA employees might be feeling is fairly prevalent throughout the public sector. What has public sector workers feeling so overwhelmed, and what can agencies and HR leaders do to help their employees win the battle against burnout?
Outpacing Private Sector Stress Levels
From the public sector’s perspective, there’s some good and not-so-good news to emerge from a recent Eagle Hill Consulting survey.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based consultancy’s poll of 1,001 U.S.-based workers, the level of job-related burnout among government employees is on the decline, if only slightly.
Among the 475 federal, state and local government workers taking part in the survey, 52% said they are burned out from their jobs, compared to 56% of public sector employees saying the same when Eagle Hill Consulting conducted a similar survey in 2022.
“We’re seeing a drop in burnout across the entire U.S. workforce, most likely attributable to the end of the global pandemic,” said Melissa Jezior, Eagle Hill Consulting president and chief executive officer. “For the public sector, the pandemic placed unprecedented stress on the public workforce, outpacing the private sector.”
While burnout levels may be dipping, “we’re still seeing the aftereffects in the form of attrition and problems recruiting public service workers,” said Jezior, adding that “governments have taken a number of steps to help deal with burnout, from raising salaries to providing increased flexibility.”
Nevertheless, public sector employees are still reporting work-related burnout at a “notably higher” rate than their counterparts in the private sector, according to Eagle Hill Consulting’s survey, which finds 46% of private sector workers saying they are burned out.
Among government workers, the poll sees burnout levels highest among women (59%), younger workers (57%) and lower-income workers (54%).
“There’s no single reason burnout is hitting women, younger and lower-income employees particularly hard. But many experts agree that intersecting stressors of the pandemic and economic issues have exacerbated stress among these groups,” said Jezior, noting that women have long reported higher levels of burnout, which is frequently attributed to gender inequities.
“Oftentimes, women are less likely to be promoted than men yet more likely to head single-parent families, which can exacerbate burnout,” she said. “Women also are more likely to work in low-paid jobs and stressful jobs, like health care, education and elder care. And, of course, the child care crisis isn’t helping.”
Time to Start the Dialogue
Jezior sees a number of factors contributing to the sense of weariness among public sector workers.
“Many public service jobs are inherently stressful and often have demanding workloads—firefighting, 911 dispatchers, emergency and disaster response, to name just a few,” Jezior told Public Eye.
Financial worries fuel burnout as well, “given that public service workers often have lower salaries than private sector employees with similar qualifications,” she continued.
Other studies offer more evidence of the financial stress that public sector workers are feeling. For example, a recent MissionSquare Research Institute survey asked more than 1,000 state and local government employees to share their perspective on their job and financial outlook, motivations for working in the public sector, morale and work concerns, and job satisfaction and retention issues facing public sector employers.
Among these government workers, just 28% reported feeling “very” or “extremely” financially secure right now.
These same government employees are feeling the effects of an unprecedented shortage of public service workers, in the wake of COVID-19 and the great resignation, “which is a new wrinkle,” said Jezior.
Indeed, Eagle Hill’s survey found 43% of government employees saying that staffing shortages contribute to their burnout, second only to “workload,” which, at 48%, was the most frequently cited factor. Another 31% indicated that “time pressures” were a significant contributor to their work-related stress.
When asked how the aforementioned staff shortages were affecting their workloads, 84% of government workers experiencing burnout said covering for unfilled positions is making their jobs more stressful. Close to half (47%) said that helping others learn the job was creating more work for them, with 42% saying that training new hires was adding to their workload.
Many of these same stressed-out government workers (69%) feel strongly that increased flexibility would help reduce burnout, with another 66% suggesting that a shortened, four-day workweek would help lighten their load. Others said the same about decreased workloads (65%), working from home (60%), better health and wellness benefits (61%), reducing administrative burdens (58%) and offering more on-site amenities (50%).
Most government workers would apparently be willing to discuss what’s got them stressed with their supervisors. The survey found 65% of burned-out government workers saying they are comfortable telling their manager or employer they feel that way. HR and other leaders in public sector organizations should be starting those conversations, said Jezior.
“We’ve seen that each jurisdiction and profession often have their own unique reasons for burnout. For example, the burnout situation for teachers is far different than it is for police officers. That means it’s important for HR leaders to really get to the specific root causes of burnout for their employees and then implement tailored solutions.”
In some situations, financial solutions such as bonuses and/or raises might help relieve employee stress, she said, while alleviating workloads or reworking schedules—a more complex task— might be appropriate in other instances.
“In other cases, aggressive action to fill open jobs might be the best approach. We’ve also even seen that expressing appreciation and recognition programs can help, especially for public service workers who are mission-driven,” Jezior concluded.
“But the first step is to initiate honest conversations with workers about burnout levels and triggers. Most government employees who are experiencing burnout feel comfortable talking about it, so that is a bit of good news from our research.” •
01 June 2023
HR News Article • June/July 2023 Issue