The time for government to feel has come

Embracing the humanity of federal employees isn't about balancing robotic professionalism and joyful home lives.

Making others feel valued is essential not just in our personal lives, but also in our workplaces. That insight, from David Brooks’ recent book, “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen,” is just as true in the federal workplace.

During May’s Mental Health Awareness Month there is much talk about wellbeing within the federal government. We know that centering the humanity of federal employees is vital to high performing cultures, like those the Partnership for Public Service recognizes as “Best Places to Work.” Yet a people-first culture is not the norm in government. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy reminds us of the risks this creates: reduced productivity, hampered creativity, high turnover and burnout.

In my 15 years as a federal employee, I have been a part of many town halls and team meetings about mental health during the month of May. However, when June arrives, these discussions tend to be set aside in favor of mechanical performance reviews and “efficient” meeting agendas.

But wellbeing concerns don’t vanish — they fester. Frustration over internal bureaucracy, disillusionment over scrapped projects, and the pain of not feeling valued chip away at morale, performance and retention. That is, unless we do something about it.

The myth of a “rational” bureaucracy

Many still cling to the idea of an impartial, rational bureaucracy where an absence of feeling is the goal. True, there are good reasons public servants must implement policy objectively and manage taxpayer dollars according to stringent rules. As a diplomat in Africa, for example, I had to remember that I spoke on behalf of the U.S. government, with the power and constraints of that charge.

Yet we take this too far. Workplace experts like Brene Brown and Adam Grant have shown that emotions are not problems to be solved, but gateways to better teamwork and performance. Companies like Google, Salesforce and others have developed flagship efforts to help employees bring their full selves to work.

I’ve experienced the risk of burying emotions firsthand. I used to believe emotions were a sign of weakness that I should hide. However, trying to bypass emotions made me an insecure colleague who cared more about speaking at people and blaming others than listening and making others feel valued. It took great mentors, therapy, a meditation practice and many imperfect conversations to realize that ignoring my all-too-human emotional life was a disservice to myself, my colleague and the public I serve.

Harmony over balance

The concept of work-life balance is outdated, especially in the post-COVID world. Work and personal life are not opposing forces; both offer fulfillment and challenges. Some of my best weeks at work involved 12-hour days planning for diplomatic missions to West Africa; some of my worst were caused by grief and stress at home or a snippy exchange with a colleague, not workload.

The impact of this dated view is clear: Gallup reports that over a quarter of government employees routinely experience burnout, with disconnection from management and colleagues partly to blame. The 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shares the pessimistic finding that less than half of those surveyed believe their agencies will use the survey results to improve working conditions.

Embracing the humanity of federal employees isn’t about balancing professional drudgery and blissful home lives. Instead, it’s harmony where our humanity is not only welcomed, but encouraged at work.

After all, the emotional connection that federal employees feel to their work, known as “public service motivation,” is a treasure trove for agency leaders to improve organizational health and performance. It is also exactly what this moment needs: How can government become more agile if we don’t acknowledge employees’ fear and anxiety about change? How can services be designed around “the lived experience of Americans” when compassion is not valued in performance reviews or executive hiring? How can we bring in diverse experiences when our workplaces aren’t safe places to share the challenges of being one of those “diverse” employees?

Progress is possible — and happening

The tide is shifting: Agency leaders are recognizing that valuing the humanity of their teams is critical to delivering on mission.

In 2022, the CIA named its first-ever Chief Wellbeing Officer. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Whole Health Program and the Center for Disease Control’s Total Worker Health approach are tackling employee wellbeing holistically. The Surgeon General’s Workplace Wellbeing Framework emphasizes “Mattering at Work” and “Connection and Community.” And Mindful FED, a federal government-wide mindfulness community supported by the Office of Personnel Management, has created meaningful space for connection — over Zoom no less — for thousands of employees.

These actions are not mere gestures; they are stepping stones to a future where the government sees caring for employees and the American people as one and the same.

The urgent need to go further

There is much talk about the critical need for government to rise to the challenges of AI and climate change, among others. We must treat creating a culture that embraces the full humanity of federal employees with the same urgency, and not just during the month of May.

This is an investment in the truest sense: Federal government leaders will find that truly caring for and making their teams feel valued will forge the committed, resilient, innovative and compassionate workforce that they – and our country – needs.

Alex Snider is Strategy Lead for the President’s Management Agenda at the U.S. General Services Administration. He previously spent 10 years as a diplomat at the U.S. Department of State and has also worked at the World Bank. He is a certified mindful facilitator from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. He is a co-lead the Federal government-wide Mental Health and Wellbeing Community of Practice, a Mindful GSA Ambassador, and co-founder of Mindful FED. You can find him on Linked in and Instagram .

This op-ed is written in his personal capacity and the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of his agency or the United States.


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