Three Tips for Improving Federal Employee Morale

In March, top Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the causes of federal employees’ low morale. The last few years have been challenging for federal employees and leadership. With a three-year freeze on basic federal pay rates, multiple government shutdowns, and unpaid furlough days steadily climbing, is it surprising that spirits are low? While these strong drivers won’t disappear overnight, short-term options do exist to increase morale and improve performance. One such opportunity is promoting a culture of wellness.By wellness, I don’t just mean physical health. Employees today are motivated and more productive when employers care about their total quality of life, which goes beyond traditional wellness and includes physical, emotional, financial and social health.Medium-to-large employersspent an average of $521 per employee on wellness programs last year, double the amount they spent five years ago. Certainly the increasing cost of healthcare is one reason, but so is a uniform shift towards increased workplace productivity. So how can the federal government minimize discontent and boost the bottom-line through wellness initiatives?

Build a better workplace. Government entities and operations are unique, so why do workspaces not reflect unique needs? The “cube” environment is outdated and counter-productive, discouraging communication between employees, coordination between departments, and any sense of community. Employees spend a third of their workweek in the office. Ideally, they should feel comfortable there. I’m not suggesting drastic federal Google-esque sleeping pods, but providing more options to employees – multiple meeting room layouts, open floor plans, specialized workstations – will result in huge improvements. Give federal employees the flexibility to choose where and how they work best. It shows respect, allows the employee to feel in control, drives innovation, and results in less stress.

Emphasize education and treat employees like people. Back to the cubes…most federal employees eat in them like gerbils. If they don’t eat there, they schedule lunch meetings. Employees think that eating at their desk and cramming in meetings increases productivity. Wrong. In fact, taking that break is better for their mind and, therefore, output. Encouraging proper breaks and optional activities signifies a corporate culture that values employee wellness, resulting in less fatigue and a more productive workforce. Brown bag luncheons are inexpensive opportunities to encourage mental wellness and create a community of people, not resources. Recruit speakers on stress management or staying healthy while traveling. Better yet, ask employees to teach demos on their passions.

Compassionate leadership. Imagine two offices. In one, an employee is greeted with impatient colleagues, work-related questions, and closed office doors. In another, colleagues share coffee and discuss the weekend with their boss in the kitchen. Where would you want to work? The federal government often shies away from human engagement and focuses exclusively on a cognitive, rather than emotional, culture. Encourage informal relationships, which are vital to morale, teamwork, and productivity, to create a psychologically healthy workplace of diverse and successful employees.

Quantifying the bottom-line impact of wellness programs is challenging. It is difficult to communicate the value of a government program when benefits don’t easily transfer to paper. Nevertheless, a Virgin HealthMiles/Workforce survey found that about 87 percent of employees said they consider health and wellness offerings when choosing an employer…or leaving one.How do you promote wellness in the workplace?