Is federal employee burnout a thing?

It might be hard to define, but job “burnout” appears to be a real phenomenon. To wit: A survey conducted earlier this month by Eagle Hill Consulting of working people across the U.S. found that 65% of government employees report feeling burned out, versus 44% in the private sector.

The sample was small, 1,003 adults, but the statistical variation is reliable.

How do you define “burnout?” I asked Eagle Hill CEO Melissa Jezior. In her...

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It might be hard to define, but job “burnout” appears to be a real phenomenon. To wit: A survey conducted earlier this month by Eagle Hill Consulting of working people across the U.S. found that 65% of government employees report feeling burned out, versus 44% in the private sector.

The sample was small, 1,003 adults, but the statistical variation is reliable.

How do you define “burnout?” I asked Eagle Hill CEO Melissa Jezior. In her view, it’s a combination of feelings. These include feeling overwhelmed, unable to work at what you consider your own peak performance, fatigue and disconnectedness. I’d add, everyone feels these emotions from time to time. Usually it passes. So maybe “burnout” is having these thoughts in combination over a sustained period of weeks or months?

Jezior said federal men and women feel burnout in about equal numbers. But the reasons they cite differ.

“Men are more likely to cite workload as their primary source of burnout,” Jezior said. “Women tend to point to lack of communication, lack of feedback and support.”

The Eagle Hill survey roughly coincides with release of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) covering 2021. You can’t really conflate the two, but the latest FEVS results do suggest that burnout potential seems to track agency size. The key index of the FEVS, employee engagement, falls off steadily from a score of 81 at agencies with fewer than 100 employees, to a score of 70 at the biggest agencies, those with more than 75,000 people. The same trend holds for employees’ perceptions of leadership, their supervisors, and what the Office of Personnel Management calls the intrinsic work experience.

More compelling, and perhaps equally unsurprising, is the case for how the pandemic affected people. The indices for all of the job satisfaction questions rose steadily from 2017 through 2020. Then they all plopped back down to 2017 levels. My hypothesis: The heady days of the early pandemic galvanized the federal workforce, even as the virus forced a wide degree of telework. Large numbers of employees joined in the crusade to get trillions of dollars into the economy, into research, into health care. But by 2021, what might be called “video meeting” fatigue started to settle in. Plus, thousands grew tired of the house also being the office and the local school.

A New York Times story the other day, on the topic of incessant video meetings, pointed out how people are getting tired of what they consider intrusive views into their homes, and of seeing into other people’s private domains. Researchers at Stanford University last year actually did coin the term “Zoom fatigue” which they defined as the exhaustion that follows video conference meetings. It’s caused by a combination of “mirror anxiety, being physically trapped, hyper gaze from a grid of staring faces, and the cognitive load from producing and interpreting nonverbal cues.”

Sound familiar? From more than 10,000 study participants, the study team found that women suffer from this form of fatigue to a greater extent than men. One cause of the differential was that, for some reason, women respondents experienced longer video meetings on average.

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja, in her introduction to the FEVS results, cautioned that changes in survey methodology from 2020 to 2021 make it hard to compare the years. In stressing the many positive FEVS findings — and there is much to me optimistic about — Ahuja also noted how the pandemic “strained” workforces throughout the economy.

A few other markers in the FEVS indicate the potential for burnout. In 2020 the index for “my workload is reasonable” hit a five-year high score of 67. That’s not really a very good number. It fell to 62 last year. More than a third of federal employees feel overworked, in other words.

Pay satisfaction also fell sharply from 2020 to last year, from 67 to 61. No wonder, the nation is experiencing what used to be called stagflation, or a shrinking economy and high inflation.

Perceiving that job, career, employer, and supervisor satisfaction are somehow all mixed up with the pandemic weirdness, OPM included extensive questioning about telework and agency support throughout. Ahuja urges management to use the FEVS results to guide improvement. In my view, solving the in-office/telework question must top every federal manager’s list of priorities.

Less than a third of FEVS respondents were working full time at an agency worksite in 2021, up from only 17% in 2020. Only 22% are fully elsewhere, leaving a lot of people hybrid and uncertain about what they’re supposed to do next.

D.C. federal employment attorney John Mahoney points out that as your employer, the government has an absolute right to determine where you work. But in a time when the phrase “take this job and shove it” is on a disconcertingly large number of minds, diktats and absolutes should maybe give way to more careful thinking. The Eagle Consulting study also notes a greater tendency on the part of public sector employees than in private sector employees to say they’d leave if a good opportunity came along. Whether that’s true or not, no manager should be content with a workforce, half of whom are keeping an eye on the exit door.

The FEVS survey authors have a telling paragraph in their conclusions. Noting that engagement scores fell last year, they state, “It’s likely that the current scores are reflective of several unique factors. First, the opportunities for telework [have] declined since the peak of the pandemic. Telework is positively related to higher scores on Employee Engagement and Global Satisfaction and declines in telework could be linked to a decline in these scores.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Amelia Brust

April 29 is recognized by UNESCO as International Dance Day, and the Guinness World Record for the longest dance marathon by an individual is held by Bandana Nepal. In 2018 she danced for 126 hours, which she did to promote Nepalese music and culture.

Source: Guinness World Records

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