Report

Running on empty: Why burnout at work is surging among government employees—and what to do about it

Research from Eagle Hill Consulting reveals that 65% of government employees feel burnt out at work, compared to 44% of workers in the private sector. Half (49%) of the government workforce is likely to leave in the next year because of it. How can agencies address burnout to protect their people—and mission success?

Burnout at work is not a new topic for government agencies, but the pandemic has made it a hot topic. Workloads are ballooning due to months-long vacancies and widespread understaffing. Forty-three percent of government employees say that workload is the leading cause of worker burnout. And when asked what steps would reduce burnout at work, nearly 9 of 10 point to a smaller workload. 

Stress is mounting from clashing personal and professional priorities and uncertainty around new ways of working. Government workers are doing more work and having to do it differently. Some are sticking it out. Others have left—or plan to soon. 

This reality of employee burnout is amplifying issues that have existed in the government environment for years. Our survey of more than 700 government workers offers insight into how they are feeling and the impact of burnout on employees’ perceptions of their employers and career decisions. 

Top 3 reasons government employees say they are burnt out 

#1

Workload

#2

Juggling personal and professional life

#3

Lack of feedback, support, and communication

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Employee Burnout Survey 2022

The government workforce is at a tipping point 

With nearly two-thirds of the government workforce showing signs of burnout—and half eyeing the door—it is time to address burnout with urgency. To do this, it is critical that leaders see burnout as an organizational issue, not a personnel issue. Burnout creates cascading impacts on people’s health and well-being, employee experience, and productivity, as well as impacting agency retention and mission performance. 

From a slow boil to a hot mess—what’s driving burnout at work?

While rampant burnout symptoms among government employees have been brewing for some time, a convergence of forces over the past two years has made the situation exponentially worse. 

A crashing wave of turnover

Government may have dodged the first wave of the Great Resignation, which wreaked havoc on private companies, but the sector is now experiencing its own turnover wave. Our analysis of US Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that government employee-initiated separations in the first quarter of this year increased by 39% compared to this same time last year. Job vacancies grew by 37%, while hires only increased by 13%. There are more government job openings now than at any time in the past 20 years, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Our survey findings align with this data. Forty-nine percent of government workers say they are likely or very likely to leave their organization in the next year. Only 30% of their private sector counterparts feel the same way. The youngest government workers are more eager to leave. A full 61% between the ages of 18 and 34 expect to quit their job during this same period. 

What’s driving turnover? Just as it did for private sector workers, the pandemic reshaped government employees’ attitudes about work and life, pushing people to make career changes. Some people nearing retirement are retiring early. Given the government retirement cliff, this is a lot of people and includes many in leadership roles. Also, more competitive salaries, flexible working arrangements, and a dynamic job seekers’ market are luring employees to the private sector. Every person who leaves government also leaves a capability vacuum that the workers who remain must fill, creating the perfect breeding ground for burnout. 

Government employees who are burnt out are 2.5x more likely to leave their organization in the next year than those who are not. 
62% vs. 26%

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Employee Burnout Survey 2022

Prolonged and painful hiring

Most government employees (75%) acknowledge that the fallout from turnover can lead to burnout. But turnover alone is not the problem. Government’s slow and laborious hiring process compounds the crisis. People leave, and their roles go unfilled for months. Exhausted colleagues must fill holes and wear multiple hats with no end in sight, and typically without additional compensation.

Consider the disparity between the time-to-hire in government and the private sector. NEOGOV reports that it usually takes 119 days in government. That’s nearly four months. Compare that to an average of 36 days in the private sector as reported by SHRM. While candidates are jumping through hoops in the government recruiting processes, they are getting attractive, more flexible offers from the private sector. This makes it very hard for agencies to compete with the private sector for top talent who can’t wait months for a job offer. 

This problem may be coming to a head. In March, the Senate passed a $1.5 trillion omnibus bill that will fund the federal government for the rest of fiscal year 2022. The bill directs the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to brief the appropriations committees on the difficulties of hiring well-qualified federal employees in reasonable timeframes. 

OPM wants to lower the average time‑to‑hire in government to 80 days. That’s still more than 2x the private sector average.

Struggles with remote and hybrid work 

Shifts in ways of working as agencies moved to remote and hybrid models during the pandemic are also contributing to burnout at work. For many government employees, this was uncharted territory. About one quarter (23%) of federal workers say that the pandemic was very or extremely disruptive to their ability to do their work, according to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey

While these different work models saved the government $180 million in the first six months of the pandemic, remote work was not common before the crisis. OPM reports that just 3% of the federal workforce worked remotely every day pre-pandemic. 

This lack of familiarity with remote working models—and all that they entail—created challenges for the workforce, from tactical to psychological. Some employees felt uncomfortable using technology at home. The Eagle Hill Consulting Federal Employee Experience Survey 2020 shows that just 37% of federal employees feel their agency placed importance on providing technology that helped make their jobs easier. The workforce also struggled to collaborate successfully with coworkers virtually and couldn’t draw a clear line for themselves where work ends, and home life begins. Stresses in each area of their lives naturally fed on each other and fed into their feeling of burnout at work.

48% of federal workers say that work demands somewhat or greatly increased due to the pandemic.

Source: 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey

How to turn down the heat on burnout at work 

Isolated approaches to burnout don’t work. Agencies that integrate strategy, planning, people, processes, and data can do more than address burnout. They can stop it before it happens.

Lean into the mission. To reduce turnover and avoid the long and cumbersome hiring processes, agencies should lean into the mission as a tool for retaining employees. Mission has always been central to what attracts people to work for government, and it’s something that the private sector can’t offer prospective candidates. As such, leaders should take every opportunity to reinforce the purpose behind their agency’s work, particularly when workloads feel overwhelming. In remote or hybrid environments, emphasizing a common mission and purpose is even more important. It helps employees feel connected to each other and to something bigger than themselves. They need continual reminders of why their work matters and creates a positive impact. 

Build workforce planning muscles. With more turnover, mounting workloads, and required shifts to new ways of working, the government workforce needs more guidance and support than ever. Providing teams with standardized, industry-leading approaches and tools for workforce planning empowers them to think critically about how the work itself is evolving—and how that impacts the functions and positions they need today and in the future (e.g., updating position descriptions, roles, and responsibilities). Increased support and guidance also helps leaders understand where they have talent gaps and the talent levers they can pull (e.g., develop/re-skill, hire, outsource, reallocate) to fill those gaps and handle the expected workload. 

Help people focus on high-value work. Another way to ensure that employees are working “smarter, not harder” is to take a critical look at underlying work processes. It’s key to explore opportunities to automate manual tasks and eliminate time-consuming workarounds. Doing this may require investing in technology training and support so that teams understand what’s possible in re-imagining how they get their work done. Employee burnout and dissatisfaction can often arise when employees feel that they are spending too much time on low-value activities. Eliminating this will go a long way to not only improve the overall employee experience, but also standardize repetitive work, saving time and delivering results faster. 

icon of data analysis

Rely on data to lead the way. To combat employee burnout, government agencies should look to their existing data for insight into what their employees are working on and where adjustments are needed. It’s key to avoid overcomplicating the use of data. While it’s tempting for agencies to want to identify all the new metrics they could (or should) be tracking, this can add to teams’ workload and stress. Instead, agencies should aim for simplicity, identifying a few meaningful workforce metrics that will help teams make better decisions around balancing or reallocating workloads. 

Methodology

The Eagle Hill Consulting Employee Burnout Survey 2022 was conducted online by Ipsos in April 2022. The survey includes 1,003 respondents from a random sample of employees across the United States who answered questions on burnout and retention. The survey includes an augment to collect additional interviews from those working in government. This augment includes 500 interviews in addition to 239 respondents from the standard survey who work in government.