Exploring wellbeing in the public sector workforce

Gideon Emmanuel is a 2022 Summer Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, exploring existing and future supports for employee mental health and wellbeing across the municipal workforce.

​​The public sector workforce is having a tough moment. According to research conducted by the MissionSquare research institute, “more than half of state and local government employees report that more people are leaving jobs at their organization since the start of the pandemic, leaving their remaining co-workers stressed, fatigued, and anxious.” Additionally, the pandemic continues to disrupt work patterns and schedules, and the tight labor market increases the difficulty of filling positions.

There are added layers of burnout for resident-facing service providers, caregivers, and first responders. There is oft-unprocessed secondary trauma from “essential worker” labor and the “culture of casual cruelty” that seems to have taken hold of the populace. Indeed, multiple long-serving team leaders in Boston city government who I spoke with this summer indicated that the tenor of interactions with residents is the most negative that they’ve witnessed. Yet it’s also clear that this current spike in the intensity of public sector work is built on the foundation of fiscal austerity and decades of underfunding the social safety net, with an increasingly heroic (read: burnout-inducing) demand made of public servants.

Given these realities, it’s not surprising that Mayor Wu was approached by a city worker on the T and asked “what are you doing about employee mental health”? My project developed in response to this interaction, with the specific mandate to document the existing programs that the City of Boston has to support employee wellbeing and mental health and explore tweaks, investments, and new visions of workforce culture that could help city leadership meet the challenge of the present moment.

So, what can be done?

One proven approach is to increase the breadth and depth of personal wellness resources provided by employers. Deloitte estimates that there may be as many as 20,000 mental health apps around the world today. Although the majority are focused on meditation and targeted at the consumer market (e.g., Headspace and Calm), an increasing selection of digitally-enabled programs with innovative approaches to supporting wellbeing and mental health are also on offer for employers. The city of Portland has received significant positive feedback from employees who went through a 12-week therapy program (with an app-driven course and therapist) called meruhealth.

Nevertheless, in the words of one city government leader I interviewed, we can’t address the endemic organizational issues “just by giving people meditation classes; we need to change culture.” While some city governments are moving backwards with workplace culture, others have begun a journey of cultural transformation centered on creating trauma-informed and resilience-oriented policies and practices throughout the organization. Over the last two years, the city of San Jose has worked with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing to train hundreds of city leaders in principles of a trauma-informed organization. Since 2015, the Philadelphia ACE Task Force (ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences) has worked with city leaders on an initiative called Take Care PHL with the goal of preventing and healing traumatic stress in the municipal workforce. Most impressively, the Healing City coalition in Baltimore has enshrined a formal mandate for the city to embed trauma-informed principles throughout government with the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act. Healing City’s intersectional approach is especially potent in its connection of the trauma-informed lens to the fight for racial and economic justice.

As progressive city leaders look for ways to retain and attract talent they will need to take a both/and approach, providing individual support and benefits to employees while also addressing the root causes of toxic stress and burnout in organizational culture. Embedding trauma-informed principles in team culture may go a long way, but given the current realities of understaffing and the ongoing reality of social safety net disinvestment, it is unlikely to fully address endemic burnout and stop the exodus from the public sector. As a recent study by a coalition of urban librarians suggests, it may be necessary to set some boundaries and limits around certain public services in order to ensure long-term sustainability and attract workers. Luckily, there has never been a better time to re-envision public service.

Gideon Emmanuel is a MA student in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. He is interested in government as a convener and shaper of the economy and fascinated by the process of public sector capacity-building that is necessary for this renewed public entrepreneurialism. He is excited to see this path unfolding in Mayor Wu’s Green New Deal in Boston! Before grad school he spent five years working with youth and five years in software, most recently as a product manager. Unbeknownst to the MONUM staff who make project assignments, he is also the child of two clinical psychologists and the spouse of a clinical social worker.

About the Fellowship:

The New Urban Mechanics Summer Fellowship is designed for entrepreneurial students and professionals interested in working in public service. During this highly selective eight-week program, summer fellows work as a team and on their own projects, generating and implementing creative and thoughtful new prototypes to benefit the City of Boston.

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The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.

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New Urban Mechanics

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.