Responsibility for Employee Morale

Employee morale is defined by the Business Dictionary as “the emotions, attitude, satisfaction, and overall outlook of employees during their time in a workplace environment.” Who is responsible for assessing and monitoring the morale of governmental public health employees and taking action when it declines? My experience showed me that effective systems are not in place for doing so.

Why does morale matter?

Morale is related to productivity, and productivity is directly related to a business’ bottom line. Low morale is also associated with high turnover rates, which can be costly for an organization. And most important are the consequences for the individual employee: the dread of coming to work, the stress of being immersed in negativity, the fear that nothing will change, and disengaging as a coping mechanism. Why should anyone have to endure that for 40 hours a week?

Governmental public health agencies are not without functions that can positively affect morale. Some efforts are simple, such as party committees, while others are related to official agency responsibilities.

Performance management systems are used to hold individuals accountable for the technical quality of their work and the nature of their interactions with others. Doing so may have a significant impact on employee morale with its potential to recognize achievement, encourage professional growth, and weed out bullies and nonperformers. But the application of these systems is fragmented, at best. For example, I saw some managers work hard to be on-time (or nearly so) with their annual reviews of employees, while others were allowed to let reviews slide for years without consequence.

Human Resources (HR) departments have the potential to positively impact morale by supporting staff and management in dealing with the sticky human relationships that arise in organizations. However, protecting their agencies from lawsuits, often at the expense of the wellbeing of employees and managers, appeared to be their main mission. I did not see HR personnel monitor morale or intervene when it took a nose dive—either at the program or agency level.

Unions and their representatives have a positive impact on morale by negotiating fair wage and benefit terms and supporting staff in disputes with management. But, as an individual who spent most of her career as a union member, their work appeared to be primarily defensive rather than offensive. Like HR departments, they did not work proactively to monitor overall morale and intervene when necessary.

Government auditors hold programs accountable for financial and programmatic performance. These audits have the potential to improve morale by ensuring that an agency’s foundational elements function smoothly and that local and state assets are not being mismanaged or abused. Important as these reviews may be, they stay in the safe territory of balance sheets and expenditures, programmatic objectives and deliverables. They do not assess the atmosphere in which that work is conducted.

Many governmental public health agencies are working toward accreditation through the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB). Fulfillment of PHAB standards would go a long way toward ensuring positive employee morale. For example, Standard 8.2 states that health departments should “ensure a competent workforce through the assessment of staff competencies, the provision of individual training and professional development, and the provision of a supportive work environment [emphasis mine].” Examples of the documentation required for this measure include “employee satisfaction survey results, needs assessments of work environment, reward and recognition programs, career ladders, promotion opportunities, and supervisor mentoring programs,” and “policies that provide an environment in which employees are supported in their jobs, a process for employee recognition, and employee wellness activities.”

The agencies I worked in implemented many of the above PHAB recommendations, but the problem I saw was the lack of follow-through on them. It’s one thing to create policies, but who holds an agency and its leadership responsible for not taking the next steps when assessments and surveys indicate problems?

For example, one agency I worked in conducted an employee satisfaction survey ever year. And every year the majority of respondents rated leadership poorly. The director would acknowledge the results in an email and promise change. Yet, subsequent surveys showed the same results.

No action was taken because employee morale was not a priority for leadership, and there were no consequences for running an agency full of unhappy people. How could there be when leadership’s political bosses characterized government employees,not infrequently, as leaches on the system—except around election time when they needed their votes?

I did witness one attempt to investigate employees’ spirits. A scandal among the agency’s leadership had resulted in a report that documented poor morale, and this report received press attention. Bad press is a sure-fire motivator for the government to take action, so a very senior official from outside of the public health division was deployed to look into the matter. He seemed to be an individual with good intentions, and he stirred things up for a little while with his presence. But after several months he departed. No effective actions were taken, and the work environment continued to deteriorate.

His departure may have resulted from the cooling off of the political pressure to act, but I also wondered if he wasn’t scared away by the enormity of the agency’s dysfunction and the Herculean effort needed to implement corrective actions.

But implementing corrective actions is essential—no matter how daunting—for the wellbeing of employees and for the public that pays for the agency’s existence and services.

So what might accountability for employee morale look like?

  1. Require governmental public health agencies to become PHAB-accredited so that they implement the PHAB activities and policies that create a supportive work environment.
  2. Systematize the assessment of morale by including it as an objective in agencies’ performance management systems and strategic plans.
  3. Identify an oversight body with the authority to take action and hold people accountable if standards are not met. This oversight body must reside outside governmental public health. As I mentioned in a previous post, like the abuser in a dysfunctional family, leaders of dysfunctional organizations have no incentive to reform a system from which they benefit.
  4. Hire consultants, who would report to the oversight body, to conduct annual assessments and work with public health agencies to implement corrective actions.
  5. Publicize the consultants’ reports.

Could a public health advisory board provide this kind of oversight? Probably not. In my state, the board is comprised of thirteen members – six from local health authorities, one state employee, and six members from health care, academia, and the public. Two ex officio, non-voting members include the state public health director and state health officer. Such members are likely too enmeshed in the dysfunctional environment of governmental public health to acknowledge and act on poor employee morale. Perhaps this oversight function could be taken on by auditing agencies.

We need an effective system—with checks and balances—to assess and monitor morale. Current efforts are too disjointed and lack focus. But everyone has a role to play. Employees need to speak up when they see a problem. Management and executives need to listen, take action, and live the message that morale is important. And elected officials just need to give a damn about the work environments of the agencies they oversee.

Your Turn

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All the best!  Kathy

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