Is the Federal Workforce Reaching Its Breaking Point?

The level of burnout across government may be approaching a crisis point. The cost is substantial and growing worse.

Recently I had contact with a federal agency that by all evidence is experiencing what is commonly known as burnout across large segments of its workforce. Anecdotal evidence over the past several years suggests the agency’s situation is not unique. It’s very possible the level of burnout across government is approaching a crisis point—a breaking point. The cost is substantial and growing worse.

Burnout is commonly understood to refer to what happens to an employee who works long hours. That’s a superficial reading and suggests it is an individual’s problem—a problem for high achievers, often physicians or entrepreneurs. But experts now understand that groups of employees can experience the same physical and emotional problems. The implications for employers are important.

Government’s reality stands in direct contrast to the conclusions from a study a few years ago by the consulting firm, Willis Towers Watson. They found the firms with highest profit margins succeeded in “energizing” employees by promoting physical, emotional and social well-being. The two drivers that explain high performance are 1) trust, which is sustained by demonstrating a sincere interest in employee well-being; and 2) the ability to maintain a reasonable balance between work and personal life. In the most successful companies, employees felt “well taken care of.”

Burnout, like the argument for employee engagement, is unfortunately a “soft” construct that does not have a standard definition or accepted metric. There is broad agreement that burnout is real but until there is agreement on what it is and the relevant metrics, it’s likely to be ignored by leaders. That was true for engagement until Gallup highlighted the ties to performance.  

The guesstimates of burnout’s impact on the country’s healthcare costs range from $125 billion to $600 billion, and the costs in terms of reduced worker productivity are believed to be far greater.  

Based on what we know about burnout and its causes, the organizational and human costs are no doubt more extensive in government than in the private sector.  That’s because private sector employers have begun to develop policies and practices intended to encourage employee engagement. They manage employees as assets, not as costs.

The Mayo Clinic has addressed job burnout:

“Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.

"Burnout isn't a medical diagnosis. Some experts think that other conditions, such as depression, are behind burnout. Whatever the cause, job burnout can affect your physical and mental health.”

A Gallup study “found 23 percent of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while another 44 percent felt burned out sometimes.” The study also shows burned out employees are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day. Significantly, they are only half as likely to discuss performance concerns with their manager.

Equally important, burnout adversely affects employee lives away from work. Those experiencing burnout are twice as likely to agree the problem makes it difficult to fulfill family responsibilities.  

That’s in the private sector. In business, companies can change their strategy or introduce new products or services but the basic goal is always the same—financial success—and the work experience undergoes only subtle change. Workday stress can be extremely high in the private sector, especially in organizations experiencing financial stress, but it’s typically time limited.

For government employees, the commitment to public service can be an important motivator to the point that, for many, it’s their life purpose. That can be problematic if the work experience turns so negative the best action is to walk away. Inadequate agency resources, unmanageable workloads, co-workers who are disgruntled, or newly elected or appointed leaders who shift an agency’s focus to new, politically-driven goals can make each month increasingly stressful, and it can go on for years.

The situation in government is exacerbated by several additional factors:  

  • The value of accrued benefits makes it very difficult for employees to rationalize quitting a federal job; stressed, burned out employees feel locked in. It’s possible that many simply check out, quitting mentally.
  • Federal work experience is often not valued by private employers, making it difficult to switch to a non-federal job at the same pay level. Looking forward to retirement is a common phrase.
  • Newly-appointed agency leaders typically focus on policy issues and often ignore day-to-day workforce management. Moreover, relatively few have experience managing large groups of workers. Daily work concerns are rarely a priority.
  • The failure to recognize and reward accomplishments, confirmed each year in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, has to affect employee commitment in today’s work environment.  Employees who do not feel valued find it increasingly difficult to justify going the extra mile.
  • Although it may seem inconsequential, the organizations rated best places to work emphasize informal working environments. They celebrate achievements. I learned of a law firm that shot a cannon on the roof whenever they won a case. Work can be fun.

Public organizations also tend to select managers and supervisors based on their technical expertise, and then they fail to adequately train them or provide the coaching and feedback necessary to become good supervisors. The importance of developing effective managers has not had adequate attention in government. Although not limited to government, there’s often a feeling that managers are biased, show favoritism or act in ways that breaks the bonds of trust.

An issue where government lags behind high-performing companies is in empowering workers. Related to that is government’s culture of compliance, which impedes worker initiative. Burnout is far more likely when workers feel they have no control over their work. Empowered workers find their jobs far more satisfying.

In the agency that triggered this column, employees for too many years have had to live with excessive hours, lack of control over workloads, and management actions that are seen as unfair. The anger is evident. Stress levels are high.

The consequences of burnout can be serious: Excessive stress triggers depression, fatigue, insomnia and irritability. It can also lead to alcohol or substance misuse, heart disease, high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes. Over time, productivity declines, absenteeism is likely to increase. If the problem is prolonged or ignored, the costs of burnout steadily increase.

While burnout has not been studied extensively, there is a brief questionnaire that can be used to assess the level of burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The questions focus on individual behaviors and reactions to common life experiences.  

However, at this point confirming burnout is not the issue. The evidence cited earlier confirms there are problems. That shifts the focus to understanding what contributes to the problem. Those who understand the causes of stress best are employees, so convening focus groups would be the simplest initial step.

The answer to improving performance is not working longer hours. The Willis Towers study is one of many that confirm the way to “energize” workers is to promote the physical, emotional and social well-being of employees. Gallup argues that the savings from improving performance will more than offset any costs to improve the work experience. Everyone wins. It’s worth considering.