SAMHSA STRONG: Teaming up to transform the workplace

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SAMHSA STRONG: Teaming up to transform the workplace  

Inspired by improved morale and a positive work environment, the people of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are working tirelessly to implement the Biden administration’s strategy to address the challenges wrought by unprecedented mental health and substance use crises in the U.S.  

“Our mission has always been important, and it has become even more urgent now,” said Sonia Chessen, SAMHSA’s chief of staff. “Our employees are absolutely essential to making our agency’s mission a reality.” 

A critical partnership 

Chessen was appointed SAMHSA’s chief of staff on the first day of the Biden administration. She and her colleagues quickly recognized the need for “a full-blown strategy” to foster a more supportive workplace.  

“We knew we had room to grow in this area and made this issue a top priority. We were committed to implementing lasting efforts to support our staff,” she said.  

In August 2021, SAMHSA’s executive leadership team chose to partner with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service to help drive these efforts.   

A major appeal was the organization’s understanding of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the results of which informed the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings, produced annually by the Partnership and Boston Consulting Group.  

Partnership-facilitated focus groups helped surface broader concerns shared by employees. Two of these concerns involved employee empowerment and a lack of collaboration across SAMHSA offices. 

“As leaders, we promise to listen closely to our staff’s thoughts and ideas. We want to involve our staff in things that are meaningful and hear what matters to them,” Chessen said. 

Finding solutions 

Working in conjunction with the Partnership, SAMHSA created cross-cutting working groups to provide a structured forum that enables internal communication and collaboration. Involving staff in meaningful decision-making, SAMHSA aimed to create an empowering work environment where everyone’s voice is heard. The ideas that emerged from these groups were instrumental in driving SAMHSA’s strategic priorities and budget development.  

SAMHSA also collaborated with the Partnership to launch the transformative SAMHSA STRONG program–the initials stand for Supportive, Transparency, Respect, Opportunity, Necessary and Growth. This four-part initiative aimed to empower employees, reconnect SAMHSA leaders with their staff and break down silos within the agency. 

The results of this collaboration were remarkable. Within just three years, SAMHSA’s Best Places to Work score doubled from roughly 37 to 74, surpassing the 2022 government-wide average. Notably, the agency saw a significant 35-point increase in the effective leadership category and a 15-point improvement in the teamwork category. 

SAMHSA executives also worked with the Partnership to develop an agencywide action plan to hold themselves accountable for improving the employee experience. The new plan focuses on psychological safety, teambuilding and internal communications, and commits SAMHSA to monitor its employee engagement, provide leadership training for supervisors, develop new platforms for employee feedback, create a new onboarding plan and more.  

The first cohort to receive the new onboarding reported a better understanding of SAMHSA’s workplace culture and how their work relates to agency priorities. The agency’s Best Places to Work mission match score, which measures how much employees identify with SAMHSA’s mission, also placed in the top quartile of 411 agency subcomponents ranked in the 2022 rankings. 

“New employees were having trouble orienting themselves to the organization; now, they get situated much more easily,” Chessen said. 

Sustaining solutions 

Chessen acknowledged the importance of ongoing improvement and looks forward to continued growth in the Best Places to Work rankings.  

“SAMHSA employees are proud of our improvement and want to keep the momentum going,” she said. “Their dedication and passion allow us to keep pushing forward and make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people we serve.” 

By embracing communication, transparency and positive principles, SAMHSA is confident that this momentum will persist, creating an even better and more enduring workplace for its dedicated employees.   

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