Prioritizing Well-Being in the Public Health Workforce

March 19, 2024 | Kristina Herrera, Ebony Fortune, Subha Chandar

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In the evolving and multifaceted field of public health, where the pursuit of community well-being takes center stage, it's easy to overlook the well-being of the individuals working tirelessly behind the scenes. Public health workers play a crucial role in safeguarding and improving the health of communities, yet the nature of their work often leads to stress, burnout, and other mental health challenges. Recognizing and addressing these issues is not only an internal workplace concern—it should be a public health priority.

Public health work involves responding to high-stakes health emergencies, navigating complex community issues, and working in understaffed agencies with limited resources. Additionally, ongoing global health challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have intensified the demands on public health professionals who have experienced increased criticism and harassment—all of which further underscores the need for robust mental health and well-being support. Practical strategies that address employee burnout are vital to workforce health and organizational retention. 

Public Health Workforce Well-Being Is Declining

The pandemic brought the relationship between work and well-being into focus, highlighting how the well-being of public health workers may impact the effectiveness of public health initiatives. For example, data from the 2021 Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS) shows that during the COVID-19 pandemic, several health department staff reported high levels of stress and burnout—and a stressed and burnt-out workforce is more likely to experience decreased productivity, impaired decision-making, and increased absenteeism. This not only affects the individuals but compromises the quality and efficiency of public health efforts.

Declining workforce well-being may also threaten long-term staff retention, leading to an exodus of professionals from the workforce. A 2023 Harvard study found that the public health workforce shrank over the last five years and recommends improvements to factors such as workplace culture. By prioritizing mental health within the workplace and shifting the culture towards prioritizing self-care and overall well-being, organizations can create an environment that fosters support and commits to health for all, including public health workers.

Practical Strategies for Improving Workplace Wellness

Integrating workplace wellness can involve a high-level assessment of an agency and leadership investment to implement innovative policies; however, here are simple, low-barrier examples of activities that can kick-start a public health agency’s journey to workplace wellness:

Offer Employee Support Programs

Support programs within the workplace allow staff to easily access and engage in wellness activities. For example, in Washington, D.C., the FITDC program—a city-wide campaign led by the Mayor’s office—offers monthly wellness webinars, provides financial incentives (e.g., gift cards for staff who achieve health and wellness milestones), partners with health insurance companies to deliver on-site health clinics, hosts fitness sessions, and distributes monthly wellness newsletters.

In addition, employee assistance programs (EAPs) that provide referrals to mental health resources offer staff tools to learn more about managing stress and other issues. For example, in the fall of 2021, Maryland launched the MyMDCares program for all state employees, offering free support and resources to manage stress, life events, and relationships by phone, text, or online anytime.

Cultivate a Supportive Culture and Work-Life Balance

Creating a workplace culture that prioritizes well-being involves fostering open communication, reducing stigma, and normalizing seeking help. Leaders play a crucial role in promoting psychological safety within the workplace, which allows teams to communicate openly, admit mistakes, and practice creativity in their work. They can set the tone by checking in with their teams one-on-one, fostering a safe space for challenging conversations, encouraging taking breaks during work, setting reasonable work expectations, and allowing flexible scheduling and telework—this enables staff to recharge and return to work with renewed energy and focus.

For agencies starting in wellness activities, maintaining a wellness agenda item during staff meetings for the health officer to discuss, opening meetings with a mindfulness practice, or offering a wellness room—a quiet space for staff to decompress or stretch—serve as easy steps towards building a workplace centered on employee wellness. For example, in Tuolumne County, CA, the local public health department worked with the Blue Zones Project to become wellness-approved, starting with turning an old clinic room into a staff wellness room that has a space to lay down, stretch, stream meditation videos, and relax during the workday.

Increase Team Cohesion and Connectedness

Per the U.S. Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being, fostering connectedness is essential to promoting wellness—as social support can mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation while promoting feelings of belonging. Additionally, the Surgeon General’s report “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” calls for increased social connection for individual health and its overall impact on community-wide well-being. For public health workers, promoting a sense of shared purpose amongst team members and emphasizing the collective effect of the team's work on community well-being can instill a strong sense of unity.

According to a recent Gallup poll, connectedness and friendship at work positively impact long-term retention and satisfaction. Providing opportunities in the public health workplace for team building is critical to employee wellness. To mitigate burnout and increase morale, the Tuolumne County Public Health Department established a FUN Committee within their organization. It supports staff connectedness by planning monthly staff social and wellness activities. So far, preliminary survey results have shown positive, with staff reporting higher morale and willingness to stay within the agency.

Providing opportunities for social interaction can be as simple as organizing salad lunch potlucks, going on group walks during breaks, celebrating birthdays and holidays, or holding lunch and learns where speakers present on activities like gardening, cooking, or art. Such activities help build connection and camaraderie, which may enhance team cohesion and improve retention because staff feel connected to their peers in their shared public health purpose.

In Conclusion

As the landscape of public health continues to change, a resilient and well-supported workforce is critical to the long-lasting impact of public health in all communities. Public health agencies must prioritize workforce wellness to address pervasive burnout and increase retention among public health workers. Taking steps to allocate resources towards wellness programs, building environments that encourage self-care, and increasing the frequency of social activities will collectively safeguard the well-being of public health staff who work tirelessly to keep our communities safe and healthy.