Supporting mental health in the federal workforce: New trends and advances
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Supporting mental health in the federal workforce: New trends and advances

May 22, 2023 | Updated on December 1, 2023
Ellie Morris

Last month, the White House issued a proclamation that established May as Mental Health Awareness Month. Since 2022, the Biden Administration has increased funding and support to address the national mental health crisis, highlighting it as a pillar within the Unity Agenda announced in his State of the Union address.

Yet while federal agencies maintain and deliver mental health services for the public, they are also turning inward, kickstarting efforts to support public servants.

Federal employee mental health issues on the rise

The Office of Personnel Management has been urging federal agencies and leaders to improve their mental health resources for employees since 2020. Major stressors—including the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise in violence against communities of color, political unrest, economic turmoil and environmental disasters—have exacerbated existing mental health concerns, further affecting the employee experience and employees’ work performance.

These factors have compounded stubbornly high rates of job burnout and heavier workloads within the federal government, leading federal workers to desperately seek support from their agencies.

Facing this need, OPM recently released Employee Assistance Programs and resources that provide agencies with services to support employees during this period of change. From hybrid work environment best practices to agency initiatives that support the mental and physical health of employees and their family members, worker accommodations for today’s new landscape are slowly but surely improving.

New trends at the Defense Department

The Department of Defense has launched an initiative to enhance its prevention workforce to address the mental well-being of agency staff. The department is hiring chief well-being officers as resources for both employees and their family members to access mental health support and initiatives.

After the CIA hired its first ever chief well-being officer in 2022, the agency expanded initiatives to support day-to-day officer well-being and work-life balance by providing wellness activities during the workday, increasing access to child care subsidies and expanding opportunities for flexible work schedules.

Mental health initiatives and prevention workforces have already made great strides in lowering the suicide rate among active-duty personnel within the DOD from 2020 to 2021. Recent efforts to implement the Brandon Act—enacted to support service members who seek confidential mental health treatment, to mandate annual mental health training and to destigmatize mental health awareness—is a move in the right direction and emblemizes the department’s overall commitment to mental health wellness and suicide prevention for service members and their families.

Recommendations for federal agencies

Support for employees’ mental and physical well-being exponentially improves psychological safety and workplace engagement. Higher levels of employee engagement, satisfaction and job commitment helps the federal government work better on behalf of the public, and fosters an equitable, supportive and thriving work environment. 

While there is not a cohesive portfolio of government-wide initiatives to improve employee mental health support, agency-specific programs are promising.

Taking inspiration from the successes of Defense’s services and OPM’s resources, the federal government can help strengthen its workforce by providing it with the mental health support it needs and deserves.

Ellie Morris is a former intern on the Partnership’s Federal Workforce team.

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