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How did public servant perceptions predict employee well-being and burnout during COVID-19?

Health workers administering COVID-19 tests to people outside

Project Summary

Burnout and compassion fatigue can be detrimental to employees, the organizations they work for, and the people they serve. Previous research shows that when job demands are high, employees may be more prone to experiencing psychological distress. We surveyed over 6,000 state and local public servants at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to document their levels of psychological distress during this period of crisis. We find that 1 in 3 employees are experiencing burnout, whereas 1 in 5 show signs of compassion fatigue. We also find that the perceptions employees hold about their own role as public servants, their coworkers and supervisors, and the people they serve are strong predictors of their well-being.

Why is this issue important?

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many state and local public servants saw sudden increases in their job demands, as they juggled sky-rocketing caseloads, redeployments to new positions on the front line, or adapting to the new demands of teleworking. This project sheds light on the extent of psychological distress among public servants during the pandemic. Furthermore, understanding how these perceptions predict their levels of psychological distress may lead to new insights into determining the most effective practices for supporting employees’ mental health, especially in times of crisis.

What are we doing?

We surveyed more than 6,000 state and local public servants during April and May 2020, measuring their levels of burnout and compassion fatigue, as well as their perceptions about their roles, their coworkers, and the people they serve.

What have we learned?

We found alarming levels of psychological distress: 1 in 3 public servants are burnt out, whereas 1 in 5 are experiencing compassion fatigue. Perceptions of their roles as public servants is a strong predictor of psychological distress. Employees who view government as the place where they can make a difference are less likely to experience both burnout and compassion fatigue. The same outcome is associated with viewing co-workers and supervisors as competent. However, public servants who hold a more holistic view of the systemic causes of poverty, as opposed to those who think poverty is due to individually-based factors, such as laziness or lack of willpower, are also the ones who find it more emotionally challenging to cope with their beneficiaries’ distress.

What comes next?

These results highlight the urgent need to invest in employees’ mental health during times of crisis. Our correlational findings about the relationship between employees’ perceptions of public service and their well-being point to promising areas for future research. For example, future research could focus on how perceptions of self and others can influence other important outcomes such as bureaucratic discretion and turnover.

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