How CBP looks after mental health of employees

Sixty seconds of video from the U.S.-Mexico border will show you that Customs and Border Protection patrol officers have high stress jobs.

Sixty seconds of video from the U.S.-Mexico border will show you that Customs and Border Protection patrol officers have high stress jobs. They’re not alone. Lots of CBP jobs bring stress. And stress brings the potential for mental health problems in the workforce. For how the agency deal with mental health, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the operational psychologist in CBP’s Workforce Operations Division, Joshua Tomchesson.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And in general, I mean, yes, Border Patrol officers are dealing with a difficult situation in a public spotlight, but lots of jobs have stress. And I guess let’s start with, you know, the tempo of work and what the stressors are that bring people to the brink of possible mental health problems beyond the ordinary requirement that you have to do a job and make a living?

Joshua Tomchesson Absolutely. First of all, if you would have asked me this question a year ago before I started with CBP, I probably would have had a much smaller and more refined answer here. But as I’ve been in the organization, one of the things that I’ve come to realize is that we have an awesome workforce of 64,000, 65,000 individuals, all doing different jobs day in and day out. My background is Department of Defense. I was the DoD guy. I would tell you that the DoD had it set up pretty nice, and they do a pretty good job, and they are working really hard. I would say the men and women of CBP do this day in and day out, not on a deployment. They’re constantly working, and the stressors are very real. Everything from the men and women on the front lines, you know, checking I.D.s, making sure that our borders are safe to those in the back offices, making sure that those individuals have what they need. And there’s a lot of unique stressors to this agency, the workforce, just like any other workforce, we have to work through and deal with it. And leadership is recognizing that we need to take care of our workforce.

Tom Temin I guess maybe one of the themes in stressful types of law enforcement or law enforcement related jobs, and this would go across many agencies, is you’re dealing with other people, the public, when that public is under stress. I mean, you could say that of people crossing the border, but also people getting off airplanes or going through screening lines. In the case of your sister agency, TSA and so on, those people are already to some degree under stress, and that’s where incidents can break out or personal insults can start flying.

Joshua Tomchesson Absolutely. It’s a very unique circumstance when you’re dealing with the public and public safety. Right. So our men and women, especially those on the front lines every day, have to be able to separate their personal life from their professional life in order to give the best service that they can to the individuals, and whether that’s somebody coming through one of the ports of entry or whether that’s, you know, a traffic stop with local law enforcement. When we’re talking about law enforcement in general, there’s an added level of complexity of stress when you have to ignore your personal life while you’re at work. And, you know, one of the things we know is that that’s not an easy task to do, not to mention, whatever is going on with the public in their personal life causes stress, right? So as a personal mantra, I always use you never know what that person’s going through, right? It’s really easy to say when you’re in a car driving down the street. It’s another thing when you’re confronted by four individuals who are very upset and want some sort of action from you. So, it’s a very unique set of circumstances for our first responders when they’re confronted with these issues.

Tom Temin And getting to your office work force operations division, what kinds of signals do you get for understanding the mental health potential problems in the workforce?

Joshua Tomchesson First, I should probably let you know the Workforce Operations Division we employ, what we call field teams. As of right now, there’s three full field teams and we’re trying to hire more. And that consists of an operational psychologist and a law enforcement individual who is a trained peer supporter chaplain. Right now we call ourselves a field team, and we are what we would consider sensors on the ground within the field going out, engaging with the men and women of the workforce, with management, talking through issues at various ports, stations, work centers to try to assist the managers and employees, and making a cultural shift right now. And what I mean by that is there’s a high priority for the agency to put our people first. And while that’s always been important, I don’t know that that’s always been at the forefront of what we were doing. And just based on the commissioner’s recent goals, putting people first is high on that priority list. So, you know, the commissioner developed for specific goals. One of those is the workforce care professional, in development, and we are looking for ways, boots on the ground to be able to assist those in leadership positions doing that. Another one of his goals is to support operations. And with that, that’s where the operational psychologist is a little bit different than a clinical psychologist. An operational psychologist’s focus is on the organization as a whole. Now that can be interacting with individuals, teams, leadership or any of the combination. Sure. As a clinical psychologist is primarily focused on the patient.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Doctor Joshua Tomchesson, an operational psychologist in the workforce operations division at Customs and Border Protection. And when does simply the normal stresses of a job devolve over into mental health problems? And then what can you do about that in such a way that the person is accepting of what it is they’re actually going through and will take help, because that’s a cultural issue, too? I think.

Joshua Tomchesson Absolutely, one of the great things that the organization has done recently is they just put out a memorandum of understanding that was agreed upon by two of the unions and leadership to provide a safe harbor, as we call it, for individuals seeking care for mental health issues. And this outlines some basic responsibilities of both the employee and leadership in order to allow individuals to come forward when they need to take me, really, when we talk about doing something like this, it’s unique to our organization in that, you know, historically, we haven’t had a culture that would allow such a thing. And now we have in writing the promise to the employee that we will do what we can to assist and take care. And that’s a huge, monumental undertaking in and it’s a huge step forward in taking care of our workforce. As I was saying, one of the core values that we’re trying to really get into is that leadership aspect of taking care of our people, because we recognize people are the mission.

Tom Temin Right. But for the federal workforce in general, the availability of EAP employee assistance plans, I think is pretty universal. What do you need to do beyond that in the CBP context? That’s just not the EAP that everybody can access.

Joshua Tomchesson Sure. So, EAP is a fantastic resource and has a lot of applicability. However, not everybody has access to EAP in our organization. We have individuals that are located 3 to 4 hours away from, you know, even a small city, let alone a city. So, EAP is phenomenal, but they can’t reach everybody. I think the last I heard; it was about 10% of folks that they can actually reach. So, what we’re working on are ways to assist the management in finding alternatives to EAP and or, personal or insurance, you know, that type of thing, but also just kind of educating our leadership on what it means. Not everybody that’s going through something would necessarily need, you know, a mental health provider per se, but that doesn’t mean that it’s still not affecting them and not affecting their work. So, when we’re talking about mental health in that regard, one of the focuses that I have is a performance enhancement individual is how do we keep high functioning individuals functioning at high levels. And we have that in this organization. And sometimes that is taking the proverbial knee for a little bit.

Tom Temin Is there a granular way to gauge the mental health of a given workforce other than, you know, the annual FEV survey, which doesn’t really get at that particular issue?

Joshua Tomchesson Sure. Well, I’d love to say yes, we could do that, you know, with a with some sort of survey or something. But we’re always going to have those types of issues. I think really if we take a look at the use of mental health services, if we take a look at the requests for those types of things, that’s part of what we do in workforce operations is trying to identify census markers, if you will, that maybe a work center could use some intervention at some point because it’s not just one person there. Maybe it’s more than one. So, one of the main keys is engaging leadership and being able to have conversations. We are working on building a culture of trust within this organization, and that’s key to being able to have any of these types of conversations. Building a place where the employees are okay with having conversations with management and leadership, that’s how we’re going to find out, because quite frankly, we work in an organization where those individuals are not going to come forward, generally speaking, and say, hey, I want help. We’re a workforce that helps others way more, that will help ourselves.

Tom Temin And the final question, it sounds like there is a model for what you’re doing in the military situation where maybe they’re a little further along in this type of effort.

Joshua Tomchesson Absolutely. So, like I said, I was a DoD guy prior to this and, this model is rung heavily in the military. There are other law enforcement agencies that have embedded mental health professionals. Many of those blend the role of operational psychologist and clinical psychologist. They’re doing both. But yes, especially right now within the Army and the Marine Corps. Embedding psychologists within units is kind of the model that they’re using. The intelligence community is another one. So yes, we’re blending a model that’s already in existence and trying to adapt it for CBP purposes.

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