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Agency Operations

Innovative approaches for managing staff mental health issues in government agencies

Allyson Brunette  Workplace Consultant

· 8 minute read

Allyson Brunette  Workplace Consultant

· 8 minute read

Government organizations seek to measure their departmental success in two non-traditional metrics: work/life balance for employees and managing staff mental health issues. But how are they doing?

How does a public sector agency define success? Neither a purely profit-driven nor an idealistic impact-driven benchmark seems to be a perfect fit. And as public sector staffing shortages appear to be stabilizing, government organizations are looking ahead toward functional goals of improving employee efficiency and increasing talent attraction and retention, as well as other benchmarks of healthy work/life balance and management of staff mental health issues.

We examined how three separate government agencies — in Washington, Colorado, and California — are taking an innovative approach to achieve these benchmarks through major overhauls of their programs and processes.

Washington state: Working on Island Time

San Juan County’s 17,000 residents primarily live across the four major inhabited islands in the San Juan Islands archipelago, in the Salish Sea in far northwest Washington state. These residents rely on ferry transportation to and from the mainland, a transportation system which has been plagued by staffing shortages since the pandemic. Following labor negotiations in 2023, the San Juan County government (which employs approximately 200 employees) compromised to meet cost-of-living adjustments in a perhaps unusual way: maintain the same rate of pay but reduce the number of hours worked. Thus, the agency introduced the 32-hour work week to its employees.

The nomenclature is intentional: 32 hours per week does not universally translate to a four-day workweek. Numerous county offices remain open five days per week, such as San Juan County’s District Court, which is mandated by state statute to remain open five days per week. With employees working up to 32 hours as full-time equivalents (FTEs), however, this equates to a 4% cost-of-living adjustment and 416 additional personal hours realized.

District Court Judge Carolyn Jewett says that an overhaul of the county court’s schedule for hearings and trials to adjust to the new 32-hour work week required staff creativity and a great deal of user education. For example, the daily court calendar was consolidated so that jury trials would not fall on Fridays.

Prior to the shift, the Court had a large criminal calendar and a jury trial term each week. Now, criminal calendars and jury trial terms have been staggered to an every-other-week model, with the flexibility in place to hear arraignments on any Tuesday morning, regardless of which docket week it is. Trials are particularly demanding on staff resources, and this does cause some employees work more than 32 hours during those weeks. (Employees who work more than 32 but fewer than 40 hours are not eligible for overtime pay but are paid for additional hours worked at their regular rate.)

From a work efficiency perspective, the small district court team (which has 5.77 FTEs) has found an increased need to cross-train and fight siloing of roles. And they are anticipating a budgetary request for an additional .5 FTE for 2025.

Despite the at-times thin staffing to maintain five days open to the public, employees have indicated that they love the new weekly model. Many services and retail options are on the mainland and require a daylong trip off-island to be completed. Employees report more time for personal interests, hobbies, and the ability to consolidate errands and appointments to one day each week, without the need to use limited vacation or sick time for these necessities.

Silicon Valley: Personalizing employee wellness

Home to more than 1.8 million people, the government of Santa Clara County — the heart of California’s Silicon Valley — boasts more than 24,000 employees and is a major provider of health services for area residents through its Behavioral Health Services Department, Public Health Department, Emergency Medical Services Agency, and three county-owned hospitals.

If county employees work so hard to deliver health services to residents, leaders felt it was important that they too should also be able to take care of their own mental and physical health. To ensure this, the commitment was codified in an organizational policy in 2018.

Since its rejuvenation in 2012, the Employee Wellness Division, which is housed under the County Executive’s office, has been on the leading edge of putting employee well-being at the forefront of the organization’s culture. Program manager Teresa Chagoya said that although offerings have evolved over the years, the program continues to stress accessibility and personalization. Health and wellness classes are offered online (and will soon return to in-person), including some in newly developed onsite classrooms and exercise amenities held in county facilities. And in its recent employment campaign, Santa Clara County dedicated a recruitment video to the organization’s wellness offerings.

The Employee Wellness Division has four navigators who work with differing types of departments to meet their staffs’ unique wellness needs, including two who specialize in developing and delivering wellness programs for hospital and health workers as well as public safety employees. The public safety navigator works in tandem with the health and wellness coordinator for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.

The Santa Clara County government also relies heavily on internal program ambassadors through its Employee Engagement and Well-Being Champions Committee. More than 100 employee ambassadors across the organization connect wellness efforts to the county’s various departments. Champions help to spread the word about upcoming programs and offerings to their colleagues, as well as to share valuable feedback with Employee Wellness Division leadership. Post-pandemic, both mental health counseling and financial counseling are in high demand by Santa Clara County employees, and the county’s partnership with Concern Health provides access to 24/7 counseling (whether in-person or virtually) with clinicians engaged directly in triage.

Golden, Colo.: A people-first workplace

City Manager Scott Vargo, the city manager of Golden, Colo., a city of slightly more than 20,000 just outside the Denver’s metro area, helped pilot a compressed workweek program last year. And Police Chief Joe Harvey jumped at the opportunity for his 72-member department to be the first to road-test it.

After nearly one year of the pilot, Chief Harvey says that he is serious about building a department and a culture in which people are “heard, respected, and taken care of” because he believes strongly that to deliver the level of public safety that Golden deserves, the organization needs “healthy, balanced, and grounded people” responding.

Chief Harvey stresses that numbers-wise, traffic stops have remained on par, while other desirable outcomes such as community engagement events and self-initiated calls for service (instances in which emergency service personnel call for service rather than the public) doubled and tripled, respectively. The outcomes of policing in Golden are actively getting better, he adds, while overtime costs were down 75% in the first year of the pilot compared to the year prior.

It’s not just about the financials, however, it’s about reaching the long-term goal of a healthier, more grounded workforce. Anecdotally, police department employees have shared positive effects of a shortened workweek that relate to physical and mental well-being — such as their ability to reduce in their blood pressure medication, sleep better, experience less stress, spend more time with their family, and feel more alert at the tail ends of their shifts.

While staffing ebbs and flows, and departments still find themselves needing to fund police academy expenditures as a part of the recruitment process, Chief Harvey says he was completely staffed at the moment. This affords the department the luxury of being more selective about whom they hire, ensuring that recruits who enter the Golden Police Department are a good cultural fit and align with the department’s vision of “elevating public trust in law enforcement through accountability and equitable policing.”

Indeed, leadership is confident that if this pilot becomes permanent, the Golden Police Department will remain competitive in talent attraction. City leadership also stressed at the time of the initial pilot announcement that this program did not mean that city staff would be working less and doing less. Rather, as Chief Harvey clarifies: “[We] have to work smarter and harder.”

As more government agencies make it a priority to achieve their goals of promoting a healthy work/life balance among employees and better manage staff members’ mental health issues, these three government agencies can act as beacons to show different ways it can be done and how success in this area can be defined.

For more strategies on managing government agencies, you can download the Thomson Reuters Institute’s State of the Government Legal Department Report 2024 here.

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