Job Stress Getting to You? You are Not Alone

Stress is real, and it can be a killer. One study showed that 80% of workers feel stress on the job, while nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress and 42% say their co-workers need such help. Other studies show clear relationships between stress and early death. Federal workers are not immune to job-related stress, and many occupy jobs that cause high levels of stress.

The most recent issue of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) Issues of Merit newsletter includes an interesting article on Emotional Labor at Work. MSPB says “In previous editions of Issues of Merit, MSPB discussed the prevalence of emotionally laborious work in Federal jobs and how emotional fatigue can negatively affect important work outcomes, including discretionary effort, intent to quit, and job performance. Given that emotional labor is required for many Federal jobs, we asked agencies about the types of emotional labor their workforce performs and the strategies they use to ensure that employees are emotionally buttressed against the stressors and strains of those emotionally challenging jobs.” They continued, “It is important to realize that many Federal employees work in highly stressful environments that require them to control both their emotions and to respond appropriately to the emotions of those in various states of anxiety and distress.”

MSPB focused on stress that is inherent in some lines of work. For example, employees who work on human trafficking may encounter children who are victims of sexual and other abuse. Law enforcement officers encounter things in their work that most of see only in highly sanitized television shows. Medical professionals deal with people who are gravely injured or who are dying from serious illnesses. Border Patrol Agents work in dangerous surroundings, often alone. Most people think of the Border Patrol being at border crossings that are heavily traveled, and do not think about the Agent on horseback in a remote area.

Air traffic controllers work in high stress environments where a single mistake could cost hundreds of lives. They work long hours and. maintain a high level of stress throughout a shift. Defense civilians are often deployed to hazardous duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas where the military is engaged in dangerous operations. Even jobs that might seem relatively easy, such as census enumerators, can have high stress from biting dogs or people who do not want anyone from the government around them.

MSPB found several agencies are taking deliberate steps to help workers cope with the stress they experience in their work. MSPB says “In terms of what agencies are doing to relieve emotional fatigue, most agencies reported having employee assistance programs to help employees deal with the stress of their jobs. Many also reported having other health and wellness programs, flexible work- life balance options, unscheduled leave, and distressed employee hotlines. Some agencies indicated they have stress management courses, peer support, and chaplaincy programs. In addition, some agency representatives reported that, to the extent possible, they adjust workloads to decrease emotional fatigue, provide flexibility whenever possible in work assignments, and respond to requests for a change in population or service provided.” 

MSPB highlighted four programs as “leading-edge programs to help manage emotional labor and stress.”

  • The Department of State High Stress Outbrief Program helps Foreign Service Officers and specialist employees returning from service at high-threat, high-risk posts to reintegrate with family, friends, and everyday life and introduce resources available to assist with the process.
  • Homeland Security Investigations recently implemented ARMOR (Awareness and Resilience Mentoring for Operational Readiness: a Safeguard Program for Child Exploitation Investigations) that includes orientation and pre-exposure training for employees who will be exposed to potentially traumatic events and images.
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation offers a number of wellness programs including the Crisis Intervention Program (CIP) and Post Critical Incident Seminar (PCIS) to heighten the awareness of employees regarding common stressors related to their job, possible reactions they may experience, and available resources to assist. The CIP teams deploy to provide services like psychological first aid, debriefing, and counseling through licensed mental health professionals and chaplains. The PCIS program provides follow-up for those in the identified “highly impacted groups” and provides 3 days of instructional and experiential learning which offer coping skills to mitigate or effectively deal with the potential for emotional labor.
  • The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) uses its Employee Resiliency Program (ERP) to deliver training, education, and preventative services that are designed to foster resilience within the USMS workforce. The goal is to build resilience within USMS personnel to proactively manage stress in response to traumatic situations. The ERP offers preemptive educational tools to employees and family members to alleviate stressful situations, decrease stress, and reduce anxiety.

Customs and Border Protection is a good example of an agency that is attempting to supplement its EAP program to address emerging needs. Earlier this year, CBP asked to increase its EAP funding, saying “The required increase to the IDIQ ceiling is due to a number of unanticipated events to which CBP was required to respond to for the health and safety of its workforce. CBP employee use of the Employee Assistance Program has increased in response to multiple, devastating hurricanes and other natural disasters, which were not foreseeable at time of contract award. Work Life services, including a Suicide Prevention Tool, increased the need for support during and after the 2018-2019 partial federal government shutdown and training sessions were required for management to assist employees with these situations. EAP use also increased in response to unanticipated critical incidents and other emerging crises, such as the unexpected response required for migrant caravans, employee suicides, and the need for a financial wellness program after the extended partial federal government shutdown. The unanticipated and unprecedented situation at the southern border over the past 12 months resulted in a significant increase in EAP activity and it is expected to continue while the migrant crisis is ongoing. The evolving needs of CBP’s growing workforce requires an increase in employee support and services that are offered through the EAP.”

One of the key points in that request was “employee suicides.” CBP is not the only agency that has experienced employee suicide. Civilian agencies and the military experience such tragedies far too often. Law enforcement officers have a high suicide rate, with more officers dying by suicide than all combined line-of-duty deaths. That tragic statistic has been true in each of the past three years. Nationwide, the police officer advocacy group BlueHELP reports that 167 police officers at all levels of government died by suicide in 2018 alone. When I was DHS Chief Human Capital Officer, the issue of employee suicide was significant.

Every agency should ensure they do more than the bare minimum to offer their employees support for work-related stress. That stress includes more than just those high visibility occupations. I have heard from workers who believe their agency missions are being undermined and they are unsure of how to cope. Do they leave and feel they have abandoned a vital mission and their co-workers? Do they stick it out and get labeled as troublemakers? Do they just keep their heads down? And what happens to employees whose organizations are not filling jobs because they bosses want to reduce the workforce, even when the workload is not shrinking? What happens to employees who are still digging out of the financial hole they found themselves in after the partial shutdown? And what happens if we have another shutdown in fiscal 2020?

Employee assistance programs can help. Some agencies have more robust programs, or programs specifically targeted to critical occupations in their agencies like those MSPB highlighted. Other agencies meet the minimum requirements and declare victory.

I encourage anyone who is feeling significant stress at work to talk with your agency employee assistance counselors. If you do not find help there, try your friends, churches, and other sources of help that are intended to be accessible by everyone. Here are two:

Crisis Text Line (Text 741741 for help). The Crisis Text Line is free, 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained Crisis Counselor. Crisis Text Line trains volunteers to support people in crisis. They have processed over 100 million messages. They offer support for emotional abuse, bullying, depression, suicide prevention, and more.

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) “provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States. The Lifeline is comprised of a national network of over 150 local crisis centers, combining custom local care and resources with national standards and best practices.”

OPM Policy Changes May Improve Hiring, But Only if Agencies Do Not Find Ways to Maintain the Status Quo

Last week, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued new guidance to agencies with the intent of improving hiring practices. The document, Improving Federal Hiring through the Use of Effective Assessment Strategies to Advance Mission Outcomes, lays out improvements to hiring practices that can be implemented without changes to the law or regulations. I believe OPM has made a good start, but there is still more that should be done.

We all know federal hiring practices are miserable. They are slow, confusing to nongovernment applicants, tied up in countless regulations, unnecessarily complicated by Veteran Preference, and often result in lists of barely qualified applicants that are not suitable for the job. The result is that hiring managers struggle to hire the right talent, applicants get frustrated, and federal workers have little trust in the system they have to use to get a promotion. Virtually no one thinks it works.

OPM is attempting to improve the process by making some changes that would increase subject-matter expert involvement prior to issuing job announcements and in making qualifications determinations, decrease reliance of applicant self-assessment and increase use of effective assessment tools, and tighten qualifications determinations and referral processes so unqualified and poorly qualified candidates do not show up on referral lists.

“A common myth about assessments is that determining minimum qualifications and rating and ranking applicants can only be done by Human Resources (HR) staff. In fact, OPM guidance indicates that it is entirely appropriate — and encouraged — to use Subject Matter Experts (SME) outside of HR, with diverse backgrounds and relevant experiences, to work with HR to perform determinations of whether applicants are qualified.”

Office of Personnel Management Guidance

The idea of having SMEs involved in the process is not new. In fact, it was the way the government ran its hiring processes for decades. At some point, the combination of hiring manager disinterest and HR Office focus on speed resulted in hiring managers and SMEs dropping out of the process. It has gotten so bad that some HR Specialists claim it is inappropriate to have SMEs involved after a job announcement has been issued. As OPM clearly states, that belief is just plain wrong. Why would anyone say that the people who know the work cannot participate in evaluating candidates, and only HR Specialists who know little, if anything, about the jobs have to do it. Even worse is the practice of many HR Specialists to rely entirely on applicant self-assessment questionnaires in USAStaffing and similar systems.

The result of the existing process is that, in many agencies, applicants are asked to assess their own qualifications. Are you qualified? Yes. Are you really well-qualified? Yes. Congratulations! You are on the list. Then the hiring manager wonders why someone who cannot spell IT shows up on a list for an IT Specialist job.

OPM’s new guidance includes two key directives that may make a difference. First, it says agencies must “Reduce agency overreliance on self-rated occupational questionnaires by expanding assessment strategies and utilizing other effective assessment methods like structured interviews, knowledge tests, situational judgment tests, USA Hire Assessments, or writing samples.” That is a good start. The self-rating process started out as a way of supplementing the work of HR professionals. It has degenerated into a process that substitutes for HR amateurs. At this point, most of those questionnaires are virtually useless and do nothing to differentiate highly qualified candidates from blowhards who say they can do anything.

The second directive requires agencies to “Involve SMEs who possess expert knowledge about the competencies and proficiency levels that are essential in successfully performing the job. Agencies should involve SMEs not only in conducting job analyses, but also in reviewing resumes and conducting structured interviews to screen out applicants not possessing the required qualifications. The italicized part is critical. If agencies actually take the time to do this, they can eliminate unqualified applicants, ensure those who show up on a list as “highly qualified” are in fact highly qualified, and greatly reduce the number of unused referral lists. That is the single greatest improvement in the process agencies can make absent structural changes in the governing law and regulations. OPM based their guidance in part on a pilot conducted in collaboration with the United States Digital Service (USDS). USDS involved SMEs in both the qualifications determinations and in ranking applicants. They also capped applications at the first 100 (OPM rules allow that, as long as every application received on the day that the 100th application comes in is considered). The result? Far fewer applications on referral lists, with much higher selection rates. USDS proved that agencies that are willing to invest the time can get dramatically better results without asking Congress to change the law.

Will agencies actually do it? I have had HR Specialists tell me only HR can evaluate applications and that it is unethical to have SMEs look at applications. Hiring managers and HR folks tell me they don’t have time to do that type of review and reliance on USAStaffing and similar systems is the only option they have. They are wrong.

Vast amounts of time are wasted by advertising jobs repeatedly in hopes of stumbling across a good applicant. Talking to great applicants about the reasons they cannot get on a certificate takes time. Dealing with a bad selection that resulted from a bad hiring process takes time. All of these time sucks do nothing to make the process work. If agencies want to improve their hiring processes. I believe they have to implement these changes as soon as possible.

OPM also identified a number of steps they will take to help improve the process. OPM says they will:

  1. Issue guidance on the effective use of the Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessment (SME-QA) process for technical positions.
  2. When regulations have been promulgated and the mandate to use category rating has been eliminated, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act can be implemented to provide greater flexibility in determining which qualified individuals are available for selection (based on numeric scores) rather than being restricted to the top 3 qualified candidates.
  3. Issue the Guide to Better Occupational Questionnaires to provide agencies additional information about methods for developing highly-effective occupational questionnaires for candidate self-assessment.
  4. Implement the Federal Supervisor Assessment (FSA) through USA Hire in FY20. The FSA is designed for Federal supervisory positions and measures seven competencies critical to supervisory success: Accountability, Customer Service, Decisiveness, Flexibility, Interpersonal Skills, Problem Solving, and Resilience.
  5. Update OPM’s staffing “mythbusters” document to incorporate new myths related to promising practices in assessment.
  6. Update the Assessment Decision Tool to provide hiring managers, HR Specialists, and I/O Psychologists with assessment options for identifying needed competencies and to develop assessment strategies for their specific hiring situations (e.g., volume of applicants, level of available resources).

That list should include one more change. OPM should explicitly ban the use of self-assessment questions for determining whether applicants meet basic qualifications requirements. OPM’s guidance says “At present, most agencies use the occupational questionnaire to screen applicants for minimum qualifications. Screening minimum qualifications using an occupational questionnaire is fine, but a “deeper dive” needs to be taken in order to address the actual competencies needed to perform the work successfully.” I disagree — screening minimum qualifications using an occupational questionnaire is not fine. It results in far too many unqualified applicants moving on to the next step of the process.

Take a look at some of the job announcements that are currently on USAJobs. Many agencies are determining qualifications via a single question that asks applicants if they are qualified. Some do not follow that up with a review by anyone, and most virtually never have it reviewed by an SME. OPM should take the next step and ban that type of qualifications process. Agencies should determine qualifications by having an SME read the résumés.

The good news is that agencies that want to do that can do it today. Taking that extra step would greatly reduce the number of bad referral lists, discourage unqualified people from applying for jobs that they clearly are not qualified to do, and increase the likelihood that strong candidates will make it through the process.