Eight in 10 local officials—and many of their employees—have faced harassment, threats, or violence on the job, according to the National League of Cities (NLC).
Public health officials have come under fire for mask and vaccine mandates—80% of those surveyed in Colorado were threatened since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, teachers and school board members are targeted for book bans and lessons about race and sexuality, city managers are facing backlash for budgetary cuts amid a flagging economy, and one third of local election officials polled in 2021 said they feel unsafe at work. Some workers encounter antagonism and hate speech at public meetings; others receive death threats by phone or see their children harassed at school.
The attacks have left many local government workers feeling overwhelmed at work and stressed at home.
To help build supportive workplaces for municipal employees, as well as other workers across the country, ICMA partnered with the American Psychological Association (APA) to launch the Mental Health in the Workplace initiative in 2022. More than 150 groups, including nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, universities, and local governments, have now joined the effort to redefine how employers approach mental health.
“The most challenging obstacle to making significant progress is erasing the stigma attached to mental health treatment,” said Marc A. Ott, ICMA’s CEO and Executive Director. “As leaders, our responsibility is to demonstrate that it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help but in fact a sign of strength.”
A Tough Spot
Compounding stress—left unaddressed—can cause problems at both the personal and the organizational level. U.S. workers say that stress on the job has negatively affected their work performance, leading to low motivation, trouble focusing, and a lack of effort, according to APA’s 2022 Work and Well-being Survey. Over time, it can also increase absenteeism and employee turnover and cause other organizational challenges.
Returning to “business as usual” after the pandemic has been a lingering challenge often involving backlogs, burnout, and budgetary restrictions. At the same time, many staffers are still dealing with ongoing personal stressors related to COVID-19, such as mourning the loss of a family member.
For example, a recent study in the journal Psychological Trauma found that law enforcement and justice workers are experiencing psychological distress related to the loss of social support and a lack of work-life balance.
On top of the mounting workload, municipal employees report facing more incivility, harassment, and threats. That hostility affects not only prominent elected officials, but also public servants at the local level who weren’t elected or appointed by a politician.
In response, some workers have started taking medications to manage their anxiety or have sought support from a therapist, according to the NLC. Others report feeling waning motivation and productivity at work and seeking stronger security measures to protect themselves and their families, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. 9 Some have simply resigned.
“People in the U.S. are gearing-up for a big 2024 election year. Political polarization may get worse before it gets better,” said Dennis Stolle, JD, PhD, APA’s senior director of applied psychology. “This puts added stress on CAOs, city and county managers, and their staffs. These workers may become the target of unjustified, politically motivated incivility. So, supporting their psychological well-being and building their psychological resilience becomes more important than ever.”
Shifting Workplace Culture
More than 80% of workers said in APA’s 2022 Work and Well-being Survey that mental health supports—including flexible hours and onsite professionals with mental health training—are important when choosing a new job.
“Our aim is to give leaders the tools to be more supportive of their workforce’s mental health,” said APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD. “Empowered with strategies grounded in psychological science, leaders can do many things to create work environments that are psychologically healthy, normalize mental health issues, and support workers’ overall well-being.”
Here are some of ICMA’s recommendations for how employers can foster a culture of well-being at work:
1. Prioritize mental health.
Embracing psychological well-being as something that’s safe to talk about should be a priority for organizations, said Ott. ICMA hosted eight events related to mental health at its 2022 annual conference, including a panel discussion focused on emotional exhaustion and its effect on the chief administrative officer, with more on the docket for 2023.
2. Practice listening in the workplace.
Listening to employees and using their feedback to improve workplace culture is another key way to bolster mental health. The mechanics will likely differ from one organization to the next, Stolle said, but could take the form of a daily check-in email or a monthly company-wide well-being survey.
3. Audit mental health benefits.
Organizations should ensure that health insurance policies cover adequate mental health care services—and that employees know how to access them. If such services aren’t being used, workers may need more information about what sort of help is available and where to find it.
4. Train leaders to promote well-being.
Even just three hours of mental health awareness training can improve attitudes toward mental health at work, according to research published in the International Journal of Stress Management.
“Leaders need to be self-aware because our mental health affects the entire organization,” said Ott. “We have to change the climate within organizations and CAOs are in the perfect position to help make that change.”
ICMA, APA, and other nonprofits have partnered to supply employers with free resources that provide concrete tips and strategies for implementing these recommendations and many others. All local government employers are welcome and encouraged to take advantage of these resources by signing on to the Striving for Mental Health Excellence program. Find additional mental resources on the ICMA website.
This article was developed in partnership with the American Psychological Association.
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