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Public Service Exhaustion – A New Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick S. Malone
September 11, 2023

I’m exhausted.

So is everyone else, apparently. In this new normal, next normal, whatever we want to call it world, we are all facing increasing levels of fatigue. Across the nation, government workers in townships, villages, cities, counties, states and at the federal level are feeling it. According to research released earlier this year, of 1001 respondents including federal, state and local government workers, 52 percent of government employees report feelings of burnout—a full six percent higher than the private sector. 

A substantive amount of data supports the contention that a weary public service workforce is becoming the norm. Research in a special issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (AJIM) pegged the costs to employers for reduced productivity and workplace absence to exceed $218 billion annually.   And while the fatigue facing the American workforce is not solely related to the public sector, public service workers are in a distinctively challenging position. Scholars suggest that the impact on the public worker is far more severe since civil servants often fill roles related to firefighting, emergency medical services, corrections and law enforcement. These professionals work in a cyclical fashion where long periods of quiet are interrupted by emergency responses demanding decisive action. The emotional and physical demands result in psychological distress. Add the stress of a politically divided nation where our public servants become unfair targets of criticism and the picture becomes clearer—fatigue is everywhere.

The trend toward a worn-out workforce is not a surprising one. One notable cause of public service exhaustion is the public appetite for government services that continues to grow. Citizens want more. They demand sidewalks, schools, clinics, streetlights, animal shelters, safe roads and more. Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is known to have suggested that all politics are local, but so are all service demands. When one tosses in the fact that oftentimes the services our communities enjoy are the result of a coordination of multiple levels of government, states working with federal, cities working with counties, the challenge to civil servants on all planes becomes more and more evident.

We could also blame the new normal, our post-great resignation world that we’re still struggling through. And we’d be right. Zoom is nice and remote work is rightly here to stay but they come with their share of tests. Stanford research introduced us to the concept of zoom fatigue that described mirror anxiety, hyper gaze and the cerebral challenges of translating nonverbal cues. It is the latter that creates the most challenge for building trust, especially among newly acquainted workers and recent hires. Indeed, organizational culture does not translate well into a virtual environment. 

Agency leaders are at fault as well, introducing uncertainty at every turn with their mishandling of the virtual/in-person equation. Some are indeed doing this well, but across the spectrum many are still grappling with how to balance the desire for remote work with organizational demands. Sadly, many managers, senior officials and directors are still too focused on modality (aka. getting people back to into an office building because we’re leasing it) than they are on mission—which for the record public servants accomplished from day one of the pandemic. The fascination with insisting things return to a pre-pandemic state boggles the mind and no doubt contributes to the state of exhaustion that our public servants face. The result has bene a series of inconsistent and illogical approaches to the hybrid era.

For leaders at all levels, public service exhaustion creates a number of hurdles but there are potential solutions. They begin with an acknowledgement of the value of quality of life. This includes adequate time for sleep, friends and family and recreation. Allowing flexible work schedules creates the space employees need to avoid the cost and anxiety related to commuting. Creating time for breaks during the day helps as well. Old fashioned managers may think that back-to-back meetings demonstrate commitment but in reality, they diminish employees’ ability to be creative. Finally, provide mental and physical health support. Access to ergonomic furniture and support services tells civil servants they matter.

Our workforce and its environment will never look like they did before the pandemic. We are living in a new time where our lives, workplaces and our routines have changed forever. The data reveals the fact that civil servants are doing their best but struggling. If we depend on the services they provide—and we do—the time to act is now. These are the people that deliver democracy to all of us. They need the attention and care of their leaders. 

Wilson was right, it is harder to run a constitution than to frame one. Now more than ever.

Author: Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.  He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service.  His co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021.

[email protected]

Twitter:  @DrPatrickMalone

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