Enhancing the Mental Wellbeing of Federal Workers

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Employee mental health is an important barometer of the health of agencies, with implications for retention and productivity.

The Office of Personnel Management and the HRStat Community of Practice recently hosted a summit on employee retention in the federal government. Nearly 1,500 people participated. One of the most enthusiastically received presentations concerned the assessment of employees’ mental health within organizations through the use of the Mental Health Quotient, or MHQ.  

The MHQ is a scientifically developed, comprehensive assessment of mental wellbeing that positions individuals on a continuum of mental health from clinical to thriving and provides aggregate metrics along functional dimensions such as Mood & Outlook, Drive & Motivation and Social Self. By incorporating demographic and life experience elements, the MHQ provides deep insights into what drives our mental wellbeing status. Presently deployed as part of the Mental Health Million project, a public interest project that tracks mental wellbeing across the globe on an ongoing basis, the MHQ provides insights into the distinct profiles and the challenges of different demographic groups (see the 2020 Mental State of the World Report). In 2020, the Mental State of the World Report revealed that approximately 25% of the U.S. population have or are at risk for clinical mental health challenges, while 41% of Americans were at succeeding or thriving mental health levels, as shown in the chart below. The U.S. MHQ data leads to a compelling question: How many federal employees are succeeding or thriving in their mental health?  

U.S. Population Mental Health Status (5/1/2020 to 4/30/2021)

In the context of measuring employee mental wellbeing within organizations, the Workforce MHQ, a tailored version of the MHQ for organizations, provides aggregate metrics of the mental wellbeing of organizations’ workforces. The Workforce MHQ results can inform the strategic design and delivery of practical solutions benefitting federal employee and agency wellbeing as well as enhanced productivity.  

Impact on the Federal Workforce

Mental wellbeing extends beyond feelings of happiness or life satisfaction to encompass the breadth of emotional, cognitive and social function and capability. These functions and capabilities evolve with life circumstances and the wider social, economic and environmental landscape. Changes to this landscape can therefore result in changes to the nature and prevalence of mental health challenges, as evidenced by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and highlighted in the Mental State of the World Report and other publications. Where the federal workforce stands on the continuum of mental wellbeing therefore serves as an important barometer of the health of federal agencies, with implications for retention, productivity, and employee wellbeing.   

As agencies’ missions expand and new work responsibilities burgeon, federal employees confront increased psychological pressures. The pandemic has compounded existing high rates of job burnout and concerns about role ambiguity, job inflexibility, and workload. These pressures are different across occupations, leading to distinct mental health challenges. For example, those in frontline roles, who have frequent face-to-face interactions with the general public, can often find themselves in situations that involve interpersonal conflict, high-pressure decision making and limited flexibility in work scheduling. Employees performing desk-bound work in remote settings may find the boundaries between personal and work life blurred, leading to a disruption of family norms and difficulties maintaining a healthy work-life balance.  

Across all jobs, personal challenges such as child and elder care problems, financial concerns or social isolation can spill over into the workplace, affecting employee performance and lowering resiliency in the face of challenging situations. Conversely, how people respond to personal and work pressures is also informed by their mental wellbeing.  

In the federal workplace, agencies’ human capital data-driven reviews (HRStat) frequently focus on measurement and interventions to address employees’ absenteeism, attrition, and alignment between workforce management and mission objectives. These outcomes are all known to be affected by the mental health status of employees with strong evidence from various research studies and polls. Furthermore, depression ranks among the leading sources of health-related productivity loss due to presenteeism. 

Among public-facing and frontline employees, such wellness issues can compromise organizational goals and objectives. The use of HRStat within agencies could therefore be materially enhanced by understanding the mental challenges within agencies’ workforces using an ongoing assessment of employees’ collective mental health.  

Workforce MHQ: A Strategic Approach 

The Workforce MHQ is uniquely suited to the assessment of employee mental wellbeing, delivering insights that guide the strategic development of interventions tailored to different workforce segments. For the employee, it provides a comprehensive whole person assessment of mental functioning that takes less than 15 minutes and is fully anonymous with privacy safeguards. On completion, it provides each employee with an individualized report on their mental wellbeing along with coping strategies, thereby promoting employees’ honest answers and high completion rates. 

For an agency and its components, the Workforce MHQ provides a neutral “Mental State of the Organization” report not tied to any particular intervention platform.  The report provides metrics of mental wellbeing that can be tracked over time and benchmarked to the national population, and insights into the distinct challenges and strengths by demographics, job roles, and geography. Agencies may include customized supplementary questions to aid in identifying key levers and determinants unique to an organization to help focus intervention strategies to address problems.  

In total, the Workforce MHQ provides federal agencies with a refined capability to measure organizational mental wellbeing and to manage it strategically for the optimized benefit of federal agencies and their employees. If the government is committed to remain a world-class employer, then agencies must embrace employee mental health as a proactive mission imperative, requiring valid scientific assessments and the development of effective data-based mental health interventions for employee and agency wellbeing. 

Tara Thiagarajan, Ph.D., is the founder and chief scientist at Sapien Labs. John Malgeri, J.D., Ph.D., is co-chair of the HRStat Community of Practice. For additional information on the Workforce MHQ, see: sapienlabs.org/workforcemhq. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of any federal agencies. 

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