Building a Culture of Care: Leadership in Public Health Agencies

August 24, 2022 | Chris Taylor

Illustration of four people, their mental batteries are very close to empty.Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic response, many of us have witnessed or experienced increased feelings of exhaustion, mental distance from our work, negativism or cynicism related to our jobs, and reduced professional efficacy. The World Health Organization classifies these symptoms of burnout as an occupational phenomenon, rather than as a medical condition.

For governmental public health agencies to successfully promote and protect the health of their communities, it is imperative that they support their staff to remain healthy and resilient. This blog provides information and considerations for state, territorial, tribal, and local health departments to identify and address work related causes of burnout, as well as build and maintain the health and mental wellbeing of their staff.

Governmental public health continues to play a central role in the COVID-19 response, which for more than two years has created unprecedented and prolonged demands on staff. Beyond the COVID-19 response, there continue to be massive changes in how and where we do business, as well as how we interact with one another, contributing to additional organizational stress.

In 2021, CDC surveyed state, territorial, tribal, and local public health staff to assess symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation. Among 26,174 public health staff who participated:

  • 53.0% reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition in the preceding two weeks, including anxiety (30.3%), depression (32.0%), PTSD (36.8%), or suicidal ideation (8.4%).
  • The highest prevalence of symptoms was among respondents 29 years or younger, as well as transgender or nonbinary persons (i.e., those who identified as neither male nor female) of all ages.
  • Public health staff who reported being unable to take time off work were more likely to report adverse mental health symptoms. Severity of symptoms increased with increasing weekly work hours and percentage of work time dedicated to COVID-19 response activities.
  • In a 2022 follow up survey, 75.5% of respondents did not think their employer had increased mental health support.

Additionally, other recent surveys have indicated a trend of rising stress and burnout in the public health workforce, leading many to resign and more to consider leaving their agencies. While some support to the workforce may be available in government agencies, staff may feel they don’t have time, or feel supported to utilize these programs. This blog series will explore strategies that health department leadership may consider to strengthen a culture of care in their organization.

Three Simple Actions You Can Take Today to Strengthen a Culture of Care

Health department leaders can have a major impact on the behaviors and health of their workforce. Consider taking these actions:

  1. Practice and offer a model of your own commitment to self-care

    Self-care, which includes a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise, are critically important for leaders in maintaining productivity and effectiveness, particularly during stressful periods. Other ways to practice self-care can include meditation or mindfulness practices, journaling, expressing gratitude or acts of kindness, or connecting with friends and loved ones. Send a message to your entire department discussing the importance of self-care and sharing examples of how you practice self-care. This not only demonstrates that your organization values and supports self-care, but also gives practical examples for staff to consider implementing. This would also be an excellent opportunity to highlight the availability of an employee assistance program (EAP) or employee wellness programs and benefits.

  2. Acknowledge the mental health effects of the COVID-19 response

    Share an example of how you (or someone you care about) has been impacted emotionally or psychologically by the COVID-19 pandemic. Your example can normalize the burnout and moral injury that some of your staff may be experiencing, as well as build trust and connectedness. Talking about mental health at work is important to reduce the stigma and create an environment that is more open and understanding about anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that might show up in the workplace. This is also an opportunity to discuss mental health coverage in your health insurance plan(s), as well as resources available in the community, some which may be funded by your department.

  3. Exercise at the office or on the office grounds

    One well-proven approach to addressing stress and improving mental health is exercise. As a leader, you can model the importance of exercise to your agency. This can be as simple as taking the stairs rather than the elevator, incorporating stretching throughout the day, or walking during phone calls. Invite staff of all abilities to join you in a stretch, movement, or walk break. Consider a standing desk, replacing your chair with a stability ball, or keeping exercise equipment in the office for use during breaks. By prioritizing and modeling physical activity, you are sending a message that self-care is important.

What Does a Culture of Care Mean for You?

Has your organization prioritized a culture of health and well-being? Are there lessons learned for your organization’s support of staff during the COVID-19 response? How is your organization ensuring a manageable workload, particularly during times of emergency response? Speak with your employee wellness, workforce development, human resources, and/or professional development teams to ensure the organization is best meeting the health and wellness needs of employees.

Based on the alarming findings of the CDC surveys, special emphasis should be placed on ensuring employees have additional information about, and are aware of, services/referrals to treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation.

What’s to Come?

Many employers and leaders have been creative in strengthening a culture of care in their organization. Over the coming months, ASTHO will highlight specific strategies to increase a culture of care in your organization. We’ll also share examples employed by health officials and other senior leaders within health organizations. 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 – particularly in high stress emergency responses. 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.