Crisis often brings out the best in people and performance, and no better example has been the herculean efforts of public health workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. These people have worked tirelessly to conduct contact tracing, track the spread of disease, and issue mask and vaccination guidance at the peril of political and public backlash.
Unfortunately, since they are not frontline healthcare workers who deal directly with patients, they are often overlooked. However, the stressors they encounter are just as real, and as leaders, it is time for you to recognize these stressors and act. Since your staff is your most valuable resource, protecting and supporting them is central to your leadership.
Unprecedented Mental Health Impact
Due to the nature of the pandemic, many public health employees have worked long hours, had limited opportunities for time off, and dealt with resource and staffing constraints. Such working conditions have taken a toll on public health employees and have manifested in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation. In addition, these workers often experience burnout, characterized as exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism related to one's job, and reduced professional efficacy.
Data Validates the Toll
Looking at recent data regarding burnout and other mental health issues among public health workers during COVID-19 is helpful to identify prevention and control measures to eliminate, reduce, and manage such issues.
Released in July 2021, the results of a nationwide CDC survey of 26,174 states, tribal, local, and territorial public health workers showed that more than half of the respondents reported symptoms of at least one major mental health condition within the previous two weeks. Additionally, their reported prevalence of PTSD was 10 to 20 percent higher than in frontline healthcare workers and public members. Prevalence was highest among younger people and those who identified themselves as transgender or nonbinary.
Solutions to Eliminate, Reduce, and Manage Burnout and Other Mental Health Issues
So now, as an employer or supervisor equipped with data, you can cultivate a healthier and safer workplace that will reenergize your staff during these and future crises. To help you accomplish this mission, here are seven approaches to combat burnout and other mental health issues and foster a productive work environment.
- Create a culture of compassion starting from the top. Any effort to address burnout and mental health issues among your staff will only succeed if there is a commitment from leadership. Leadership should encourage staff to seek help if they feel like they have a hard time coping with stress. For example, you should ensure that employees know about warning signs of burnout and other mental health issues. Have human resource staff hold all-hands staff meetings that address mental health issues, covering symptoms, prevention, and treatment. Encourage open dialogue no matter what rank the staff member holds. Also, have your human resource staff remind employees of what their mental health benefits are.
- Establish or enhance Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). EAPs offer confidential, safe resources for employees to talk about how they are feeling and provide them with coping skills to manage stress. Make staff aware of the types of resources your EAP offers.
- Implement flexible leave policies. Recognize that your staff have demands outside the workplace, such as child or elder care, and may need to take off from work to address these demands. There are also celebrations that staff may want to take leave for, such as to attend graduations, weddings, etc. Encourage your team to take advantage of these special moments and work together to ensure adequate coverage while your staff member is gone.
- Help your employees prioritize tasks so they know how to focus their time and attention. Meet with your employees frequently to discuss workload and assignments. Engage your staff in decision-making and be transparent about company goals and objectives.
- Convene award and recognition ceremonies. Ceremonies help build employee morale and encourage staff to excel in their position. If time and/or capacity is limited, consider hosting a virtual program or small lunch to recognize staff.
- Establish mentoring programs. Provide opportunities for new employees to obtain the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for effective job performance. Match new staff with more seasoned employees who can help their mentees navigate the workplace.
- Optimize staffing. Regularly evaluate staffing to ensure the workload is evenly distributed and consider hiring additional staff if you find a shortage.
Employees are counting on you to make mental health a number one priority. These solutions above will help build robust, resilient workers that feel protected and appreciated by their employers and supervisors.
Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members.
 Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases
 Symptoms of Depression, Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Suicidal Ideation Among State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Public Health Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, March-April 2021
Symptoms of Depression, Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Suicidal Ideation Among State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Public Health Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, March–April 2021 | MMWR (cdc.gov)