Local Government Employees and COVID-19 Stress: What Managers Can Do About It

What’s a local government manager to do about promoting emotional health during COVID-19? Here are some recommendations:

By Leisha DeHart-Davis, UNC School of Government | May 7, 2020 | BLOG POST

It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to figure out that the COVID-19 pandemic is taking an emotional toll on local government employees. Emergency medical professionals transport COVID-19 victims at increased risks to themselves, with protocols that change on a daily basis. Law enforcement officers are tasked with enforcing stay-at-home orders, a new responsibility that put them at odds with some citizens. Dispatch operators take calls from panicked citizens with COVID-19 symptoms. Social service employees handle the escalating strains on the social safety net, including food security and child welfare programs.

Even outside of emergency services and law enforcement, the pandemic is stressing out local government employees. Many are forced to work at home, where they may have a house full of kids (and perhaps a spouse). Others are working at home alone, meaning they are isolated from the social interactions of work. Some employees may still be interacting with citizens, some of whom are out of work and stressed themselves, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to civility. Loneliness and monotony may be weighing in, even for employees who are adept at connecting with others via Zoom. It’s not a stretch to suspect that the risk of damaging your employees’ sense of belonging to your organization, along with the cohesion of your organization, is high.

So, what’s a local government manager to do about promoting emotional health during COVID-19? Here are some recommendations:

If you have an employee assistance program (EAP), promote it to your employees.

EAPs are fairly low-cost options for providing services that support the emotional health of employees. While EAPs can be internally operated, many at the local government level are contracted out. Research suggests that employees tend to be only vaguely familiar with their employer’s programs and, as such, EAPs tend to be underutilized. Now is a good time to let employees know what your EAP offers and encourage them to use it.

Practice flexibility in the workplace.

Some (if not many) employees are anxious and scared. I read on a human resource website that employees not coming to work should be disciplined. While there are some cases where this may be warranted, this is a short-sighted view that fails to consider employee well-being. Reach out to your direct reports on a frequent basis and gauge their stress level, understand their stress triggers, provide a listening ear, and assure your employees that you will do everything possible to make their situation as safe and secure as possible. And if needed, refer that employee to your organization’s EAP or some other external mental health resource.

Consider virtual organization-wide meetings so your employees can hear from you.

At the UNC School of Government, Dean Mike Smith gathers employees by Zoom weekly to update us and also to hear from us. This gathering is greatly appreciated by faculty and staff alike because it fosters a sense of organizational cohesion. Your employees will appreciate hearing from you.

Encourage supervisors to check in with employees routinely to see how they are doing.

The idea here is not for supervisors to become therapists, but rather to make sure that employees have what they need, whether its supervisory support, the employee assistance program, a break in the workload, or whatever.

Finally, take care of yourself.

Do whatever you need to do to stay healthy and sane, whether it’s going for walks, working out, or baking brownies. You are responsible for “modeling the way” for your employees and, believe me, they will follow your lead when it comes to managing stress levels.

This pandemic too shall pass. In the meantime, remember that your employees need to know that you care about their emotional well-being. They will remember your concern and caring far after COVID-19 is over.

For additional information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.


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