This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
Stress is real, and it can be a killer. One study showed that 80% of workers feel stress on the job, while nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress and 42% say their co-workers need such help.
Other studies show clear relationships between stress and early death. Federal workers are not immune to job-related stress, and many occupy jobs that cause high levels of stress.
The most recent issue of the Merit Systems Protection Board’s “Issues of Merit” newsletter includes an interesting article on emotional labor at work. MSPB said, “In previous editions of ‘Issues of Merit,’ MSPB discussed the prevalence of emotionally laborious work in federal jobs and how emotional fatigue can negatively affect important work outcomes, including discretionary effort, intent to quit, and job performance. Given that emotional labor is required for many federal jobs, we asked agencies about the types of emotional labor their workforce performs and the strategies they use to ensure that employees are emotionally buttressed against the stressors and strains of those emotionally challenging jobs.” They continued, “It is important to realize that many federal employees work in highly stressful environments that require them to control both their emotions and to respond appropriately to the emotions of those in various states of anxiety and distress.”
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MSPB focused on stress that is inherent in some lines of work. For example, employees who work on human trafficking may encounter children who are victims of sexual and other abuse. Law enforcement officers encounter things in their work that most of us see only in highly sanitized television shows. Medical professionals deal with people who are gravely injured or who are dying from serious illnesses. Border Patrol agents work in dangerous surroundings, often alone. Most people think of the Border Patrol being at border crossings that are heavily traveled, and do not think about the agent on horseback in a remote area.
Air traffic controllers work in high stress environments where a single mistake could cost hundreds of lives. They work long hours and maintain a high level of stress throughout a shift. Defense civilians are often deployed to hazardous duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas where the military is engaged in dangerous operations. Even jobs that might seem relatively easy, such as census enumerators, can have high stress from biting dogs or people who do not want anyone from the government around them.
MSPB found several agencies are taking deliberate steps to help workers cope with the stress they experience in their work. MSPB said, “In terms of what agencies are doing to relieve emotional fatigue, most agencies reported having employee assistance programs to help employees deal with the stress of their jobs. Many also reported having other health and wellness programs, flexible work-life balance options, unscheduled leave, and distressed employee hotlines. Some agencies indicated they have stress management courses, peer support, and chaplaincy programs. In addition, some agency representatives reported that, to the extent possible, they adjust workloads to decrease emotional fatigue, provide flexibility whenever possible in work assignments, and respond to requests for a change in population or service provided.”
MSPB highlighted four programs as “leading-edge programs to help manage emotional labor and stress.”
Customs and Border Protection is a good example of an agency that is attempting to supplement its EAP program to address emerging needs. Earlier this year, CBP asked to increase its EAP funding, saying, “The required increase to the [indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity] ceiling is due to a number of unanticipated events to which CBP was required to respond to for the health and safety of its workforce. CBP employee use of the Employee Assistance Program has increased in response to multiple, devastating hurricanes and other natural disasters, which were not foreseeable at time of contract award. Work Life services, including a Suicide Prevention Tool, increased the need for support during and after the 2018-2019 partial federal government shutdown and training sessions were required for management to assist employees with these situations.
One of the key points in that request was employee suicides. CBP is not the only agency that has experienced employee suicide — civilian agencies and the military experience such tragedies far too often. Law enforcement officers have a high suicide rate, with more officers dying by suicide than all combined line-of-duty deaths. That tragic statistic has been true in each of the past three years. Nationwide, the police officer advocacy group BlueHELP reports that 167 police officers at all levels of government died by suicide in 2018 alone. When I was DHS chief human capital officer, the issue of employee suicide was significant.
Every agency should ensure they do more than the bare minimum to offer their employees support for work-related stress. That stress includes more than just those high visibility occupations. I have heard from workers who believe their agency missions are being undermined and they are unsure of how to cope. Do they leave and feel they have abandoned a vital mission and their co-workers? Do they stick it out and get labeled as troublemakers? Do they just keep their heads down? And what happens to employees whose organizations are not filling jobs because the bosses want to reduce the workforce, even when the workload is not shrinking? What happens to employees who are still digging out of the financial hole they found themselves in after the partial shutdown, and what happens if we have another shutdown in fiscal 2020?
Employee assistance programs can help. Some agencies have more robust programs, or programs specifically targeted to critical occupations in their agencies like those MSPB highlighted. Other agencies meet the minimum requirements and declare victory.
I encourage anyone who is feeling significant stress at work to talk with your agency employee assistance counselors. If you do not find help there, try your friends, churches, and other sources of help that are intended to be accessible by everyone. Here are two: