Building a Culture of Care: Art, Quiet, and Animal Therapy 

January 25, 2023 | Chris Taylor

Woman working at a desk with her left arm around a golden retrieverAs public health professionals continue to respond to COVID-19 and emerging infections such as monkeypox and polio—while also carrying out their routine work—they face a heighted risk of experiencing mental health challenges, stress, and burnout.

Back in August, we highlighted CDC data on public health workforce mental health. We also referenced Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS) data indicating rising stress and burnout in the public health workforce, leading many to resign and more to consider leaving their agencies.

This month, we are highlighting strategies health department leaders can explore to reduce staff stress and burnout. According to Mental Health America, while self-care is proven to reduce stress and anxiety, on average, people only spend 15 minutes a day on health-related self-care. How can health department leadership encourage and promote the importance of self-care and create an environment conducive to a culture of care? Here are three strategies to consider:

  1. The Importance of Quiet Spaces: It can take up to 25 minutes to regain focus after an interruption. And in one employee survey, 88% of respondents said that spaces designed for concentration helped raise the quality of their performance. Even before the pandemic, many offices were creating quiet spaces, meditation rooms, and a culture of minimizing unnecessary distractions. As workers return to in-person office work, some may struggle with losing newly developed habits and the ability to manage their surroundings. Employers can help create a flexible work environment that allows employees to be productive both when collaborating and when working alone. Actions you can take today include:

    • Designate quiet spaces where staff can work without everyday office distractions.
    • Encourage staff to step away from their desk for short breaks to clear their mind and re-center themselves.
  2. The Power of Visual Arts: Research and employee surveys have shown that art in the workplace benefits productivity, as well as emotional and cognitive well-being. One study on workplaces with integrated artwork collections found that 78% of respondents agreed that artwork helps reduce stress. Actions you can take today include:

    • Offer to display artwork created by employees and their families.
    • Partner with other government agencies and/or museums to display artwork from their collections.
    • Invite grantees, schools, and other community organizations to create artwork highlighting the culture of their communities and display in public health offices.

    There is a saying that “creativity breeds creativity.” Creating space for the display, appreciation, and inspiration of the visual arts will hopefully inspire a workforce that is happier and healthier.

  3. Animals in the Workplace: One of the benefits of remote work for some staff was the flexibility to spend the workday with their pets. While not all organizations have the flexibility for employees to bring their non-service animal to work, there may be opportunities to provide access to support and therapy animals to more staff. The Society for Human Resources Management notes that 47% of Inc. magazine's list of best places to work allow dogs in the office. Meanwhile, petting a dog for five to 10 minutes can help lower blood pressure while creating a calming effect. Actions you can take today include:

    • Partner with a local organization and hold periodic animal therapy opportunities for staff.
    • Invite local animal shelters to hold adoption events for staff.
    • Plan an in-service on the benefits of animal therapy.

What's to Come?

Many employers and leaders have found creative ways to strengthen their organization’s culture of care. In the coming months, ASTHO will highlight specific strategies to increase a culture of care in your organization. We’ll also share real-life examples from health officials and other senior leaders. Finally, we plan to curate a list of resources for executives, supervisors, and employees for creating a culture of care, stress reduction, self-care, and burnout prevention.

For public health systems to serve their communities most effectively, it is imperative that their staff are healthy, both physically and mentally. State, territorial, tribal, and local health departments should consider policies and programs that support the health and mental well-being of their staff. We look forward to additional opportunities to discuss these important issues, hear how health department leaders are strengthening a culture of care, and learning how ASTHO can support your efforts.