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Building up from burnout: How government agencies can creatively adapt amid the Great Resignation

By Andrew Edelson

A record-breaking four million U.S. workers left their jobs each month during the first half of 2022, and the Great Resignation shows no signs of slowing. As Americans recalculated their priorities in quarantine, many opted to job jump or exit the workforce entirely. Employees that remained were expected to fill the capability vacuum, all while adjusting to remote work and personal pandemic stressors. Those factors combined to accelerate workforce burnout. 

No corner of the economy is feeling burnout more than the public sector. More than half (56%) of government workers report feeling burnout, compared to 47% of private sector workers, according to Eagle Hill’s latest poll on the subject. Public sector burnout has improved by an encouraging nine percent since our April 2022 poll—but continued improvement is necessary. Burnout can create workplace negativity, cynicism, and difficulty working effectively. And it puts employee mental health and productivity at risk.

Percentage of U.S. workers reporting burnout

56%

Government
workers

47%

Private sector
workers

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Employee Burnout Survey August 2022

How burnout fuels the Great Resignation 

At the agency level, employee burnout can lead to vacancies. According to our research, more than a third of government employees plan to leave their job within the next year. Among government employees, a startling 46% of Millennials and 47% of lower income workers plan to vacate their position within the next 12 months.

Those vacancies lead to more burnout as remaining employees cover the workload left behind. Around 47 million Americans left their jobs in 2021, often leaving colleagues to cover additional tasks until the vacancy is filled. In the private sector, vacancies are filled in an average of 36 days. Meanwhile, government jobs take an average of 119 days to fill. When asked how staffing shortages impact workload, 82% of government workers cited covering the workload of unfilled positions, and 45% cited helping new employees learn their job.

Public sector vs. private sector burnout

Private companies have the benefit of flexible finances and the ability to make quick organizational shifts—such as improving job perks and quickly filling vacancies. Meanwhile, government agencies contend with more rigid budgets, inherently slow hiring processes and limitations on policy changes. Given these burdens that are unique to government, agencies will have no choice but to get creative to combat burnout and staffing challenges.

What’s driving public sector burnout?

To address burnout, it’s vital to understand what drives it. Government workers cite four main drivers of burnout: workload, lack of communication/support, juggling personal and professional life, and time pressures (see figure).

Top 4 drivers of burnout for government workers

Workload

Lack of communication, feedback, and support in the workplace

Juggling personal and professional lives

Time pressures

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Employee Burnout Survey August 2022 

Data-driven ways to adapt

Solutions to burnout don’t have to be complex. Rather than rethinking the entire system, agencies can make small adjustments to better harness the tools already at their fingertips. Amid the Great Resignation, a piecemeal approach won’t cut it. Instead, leaders should pursue integrated approaches to building the workforce of the future.

Leverage the flexibility worked into the system. When asked how burnout could be reduced, 67% of government survey respondents said a four-day work week and increased flexibility; 63% cited decreased workloads; and 63% said the ability to work from home. While agency leaders may not be able to change the rules on a dime, most agencies already offer flexibility. For instance, some agencies allow workers to choose between working five eight-hour days or four ten-hour days each week. It’s up to leaders to communicate these allowances to their employees.

Cultivate a check-in culture. Mass resignations have left remaining employees shouldering heavy workloads. While the public sector may not be as quick to fill vacancies, periodic workload check-ins could help better distribute workload. Employees should be encouraged to voice their bandwidth constraints, discuss priorities, and execute accordingly. Collaboration with their supervisor helps employees communicate time pressures or personal obligations that they may be juggling.

Prioritize workforce planning. As the workforce changes, it’s important for leaders to consider ways to meet that challenge. Do job descriptions and responsibilities need to evolve? What talent gaps exist? Are there any jobs that can be re-skilled or outsourced? Carving out time to brainstorm and execute on workforce planning can help leaders keep their agencies ahead of the curve.

Refocus on the mission. Higher salaries and flexible working arrangements found in the private sector may be alluring to government employees. But a worthy mission is a powerful tool for retaining employees—an edge that many private sector companies lack. When employees are feeling the heat of burnout, it may be time to help them reconnect with the purpose behind their work. Connecting to the organization’s mission can be especially difficult in remote environments. Leaders can seek creative ways to bring that mission to the forefront of their team’s mind each day.

The pandemic may be waning, but American workers continue to feel the heat of burnout. If the resignation crisis continues, government agencies could face a serious dearth of workers. To address staffing concerns, an integrated approach will be necessary. Agency leaders should be encouraged to plan for the future and consider how their current workforce will have to evolve to meet goals. In the short term, it’s important for agency leaders to find out what employees want and work with them through existing channels to help achieve those goals. There’s still time to address the Great Resignation—but with more than a third of the government workforce planning to leave their job within the next 12 months, it’s important to begin now.

Methodology

The findings are based upon the 2022 Eagle Hill Consulting COVID-19 Workforce Burnout Survey from Eagle Hill Consulting conducted by Ipsos in August 2022. The survey included 1,000 respondents from a random sample of employees across the U.S. on burnout and retention. The survey includes an augment to collect additional interviews from those working in government (local, state, or federal government). This augment includes 500 interviews in addition to 182 respondents from the standard survey who work for the government.