Spy agency leaders aim to change workforce perceptions about well-being, mental health

The White House is close to finalizing a new security clearance application, which will feature new questions about mental health designed to reduce stigma.

Intelligence community leaders are attempting to change perceptions about IC workforce culture by increasing the focus on employee well-being and overcoming a persistent stigma that prevents many security clearance holders from addressing mental health issues.

A white paper released by Leidos in August found that while 92% of clearance applicants are comfortable disclosing their mental health history, 63% are “very or somewhat concerned” about the role that history could play in their investigation.

“Despite individuals’ comfort with discussing mental health issues, they largely do not trust the clearance process to treat these issues appropriately,” the white paper states.

Officials have made some progress over the past decade in convincing people that it’s highly unlikely a clearance will be denied or revoked due to a psychological issue. Officials point to data that shows a miniscule amount of clearances have been denied or revoked solely due to a person’s psychological issues.

But the latest Leidos survey shows the myth still has a long way to go toward being dispelled.

Mark Frownfelter, assistant director of the special special directorate at the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, acknowledged there’s an “intimidation factor” to the section of the security clearance application focused on “psychological and emotional health.”

“I’m here to tell you that seeking treatment or counseling for a mental health condition is a sign of strength. It’s viewed in a positive light, as early intervention is the key to facing any type of condition,” Frownfelter said at a Sept. 27 event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance in Arlington, VA.

While some psychological issues can prevent an applicant from being granted a clearance, those are “very, very egregious conditions,” Frownfelter said, adding, “obviously, treatment for things like depression and anxiety do not rise to that level.”

The Office of Personnel Management last November proposed a new security questionnaire that would consolidate several existing forms into one, while also updating questions about mental health, among other changes.

“We’re making the recommendation to pivot away from just listing diagnoses to more about behaviors and conduct, which is really what the information collection is intended to do,” Frownfelter said.

The new form is still being finalized at the White House Office of Management and Budget. Frownfelter said he hopes it will be out “in the next few months.” But it will take time to implement the new form into agency recruiting processes and technologies, he added.

“I think we’re still about a year away, but the framework has been developed,” he said.

Victoria Hoiles, director of the CIA’s Center for Global Health Services, said the agency also views seeking mental health treatment as a positive factor.

“What we’re looking at for any particular condition is, how is that condition managed? Is it stable? Is it well treated? That’s really what’s key,” Hoiles said. “And it’s really in the context of the person’s entire life. When we’re looking at it, there’s not a singular focus on a previous mental health struggle.”

While the CIA for years has offered its employees free, short-term, confidential counseling, Hoiles said the agency is increasing the focus on health of its workforce. Last year, the CIA hired its first “chief wellbeing officer” with the addition of Jennifer Posa, a longtime well-being leader in industry.

“In this first year, we’ve been very focused, and the chief well-being officer has been very focused on hearing from the workforce: What are their needs, what are their priorities?” Hoiles said.

She added the CIA is primarily focused on four distinct areas: work-life effectiveness, health and well-being support, workplace flexibility, and organizational support.

“We are looking to build out knowledge, programs [and] resources that officers and their families can utilize throughout their lifecycle with us and no matter where they’re serving,” Hoiles said.

The CIA is also seeking to measure well-being as a metric across its overall workforce.

“What’s our baseline, and then as we add resources, as we increase knowledge and awareness of the resources that we have available to the organization, do we see a shift in that?” Hoiles said. “We have done some initial focus groups and are looking at some survey tools to allow us to kind of measure the well-being or happiness, if you will.”

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