It is noteworthy that in an issue of PM magazine focused on public safety, mental health themes are so prominent. I have written about the importance of this topic in this column multiple times over the past several years because I believe that only by normalizing conversations about mental health can we create the healthy organizations we all strive for.
Local government leaders have made progress in pulling back the curtain on mental health by prioritizing important measures such as incorporating it into employee insurance policies and creating safe spaces for staff to share their struggles. Many local government leaders have joined their private and nonprofit sector counterparts in publicly committing to prioritizing mental health. You can visit icma.org/apa to learn more about this initiative and how your city, town, or county can make the commitment to strive for mental health and excellence.
Pandemic Adds to Employee Stress
There is no doubt that for CAOs the mental health and wellness of public safety professionals looms large among local government human resource concerns. It has been five years since the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act has been signed into law. The act recognizes that good mental and psychological health is just as essential as good physical health in order for law enforcement officers to be effective in keeping our communities safe from crime and violence. In 2021, the International Association of Fire Chiefs updated its best practices in behavioral wellness for first responders. The pandemic added an additional layer of stress to an already mentally and emotionally challenging environment.
It is equally important that city, town, and county managers focus on their own mental hygiene. ICMA resources, such as the report, “Leadership Before, During, and After a Crisis,” have drawn attention to the tendency of CAOs to ignore their own needs in order to attend to those of their residents and staff. But the prolonged COVID crisis led millions of workers around the globe, including those in local government, to quit their jobs.
What did not get as much attention is how this affected the “C-Suite.” According to a McKinsey and Company survey in Forbes Magazine, 70% of CEOs consider leaving for a role that would better support their well-being. Local government leaders may be more mission driven than their corporate counterparts, but I know we have lost many outstanding city and county managers, assistants, and department directors in the past two years. As typical in any crisis, they have summoned all of their energy to keep their communities on track, to fill important slots left open due to resignations, and to simply reassure everyone that things are under control.
Normalizing Mental Health Conversations
The traditional leadership attributes—strong, focused, fearless—have not necessarily served us well as many of our peers and colleagues suffer in silence. Leaders wonder, “Who the heck do I talk with about this? I might be viewed as weak if I’m seen taking advantage of EAP or other counseling services.” ICMA has had conference sessions on this topic, and we wondered if anyone would attend. We have gone so far as to schedule them in the late afternoon and in out-of-the-way conference rooms.
What we found is that among peers and in a safe space, people are willing to open up and share their experiences. It’s safe because you’re talking to people who know what you’re going through and feeling the same things at the same time that you are. It’s safe because it’s away from the prying eyes of the media and even elected officials. So while I sympathize with corporate CEOs as they deal with the pressures to meet shareholder and board expectations, they are not performing their duties in a fish bowl as city and county managers must do day in and day out.
Yes, it is vital to fight for resources to support your employee family, especially those public safety professionals who put their lives on the line every day to keep our community safe. But it is equally important to maintain an awareness of your own mental health; to think of it as a wellness check like your annual physical. Normalizing these conversations and observations about our mental wellness will go a long way toward reducing burnout, coping with stress, and ultimately thriving rather than merely surviving.
MARC A. OTT is CEO/Executive Director of ICMA, Washington, D.C.
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