The initial findings of a nine-month Workforce Health and Well-Being Project for Mono County employees revealed exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety within the ranks, painting a picture of a workforce struggling to cope with the demands laid upon them. Those findings were presented to the Mono County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday by Beth Cohen, a clinical and organizational psychologist hired to assess the County’s organizational functioning and employee well-being.
The Workforce Health Project was the “brainchild” of former County Administrative Officer (CAO) Leslie Chapman, who resigned from that position earlier this year. Cohen conducted a series of individual and group conversations with County employees ranging from the county Supervisors to department workers and everyone in between. Cohen spoke with roughly 47% of county employees, which includes the five Supervisors, all three CAOs who’ve been in office this year, and fifteen out of eighteen department heads. She noted that the participation rate was the highest she’d seen, adding “I know how committed you are not only to your work, but also to your health and wel-being.”
In speaking with county employees, Cohen identified six key themes affecting employee well-being:
1. Organizational Foundations and Strengths
2. Organizational Culture of Urgency and Reactivity
3. Change Exhaustion/Uncertainty
4. Department Heads
5. Clarification of Board and CAO Responsibilities
6. Health Promotion and Prevention
Cohen chose to present the good news first: 80% of county employees saw the lifestyle that Mono County offers as a strength while 68% viewed staff commitment and customer service as positives of the job. Other strengths listed by employees included board responsiveness and commitment to staff, the civil service mindset, and a drive towards excellence.
Then came the bad news: staff was asked to describe areas of challenge. 79% of county employees cited workload demands as a challenge, with Cohen explaining a feeling of “exceeding their capacities at times.” 66% reported facing exhaustion and burnout while 51% reported experiencing priority confusion.
Cohen explained, “We go into public service work … because we want to make a difference … and when you have urgency issues and when you have these kinds of work demands, quite often that moves into mediocrity.”
She also referenced “siloing” (departmental self-isolation) as a barrier, created by excessive workload, that prohibits coordination and execution. According to Cohen, intradepartmental relations came as a “significant theme” throughout the project; she pointed to communications, “factions” forming within departments, and a perceived lack of team cohesion as common issues.
Cohen also reported that a “number of staff talked about how issues going on with senior leaders affected their ability to interface and get work done.”
To fix these issues, Cohen laid out her recommendations, the majority of which focused on top-down direction. prioritization and defining expectations of workflow. She also singled out human resources, finance, and the CAO’s office as needing to address staffing issues.
In terms of solving intra-departmental tensions, Cohen recommended building relationships between departments and addressing the executive leadership team process.
Another topic of concern, reported by nearly 50% of the individuals that Cohen spoke with, was the new Civic Center project, specifically the move-in process. 49% of employees cited communication as a challenge, with Cohen noting a “perception that there hasn’t been enough.” 48% of employees reported anticipatory anxiety while 45% were concerned with physical space needs. Cohen advocated dealing with that anxiety quickly, citing a “correlation between addressing anxiety before the move and a more positive experience with the move.”
The Civic Center fell under the “Change Exhaustion and Uncertainty” theme, along with CAO turnover and the ongoing county salary survey/labor negotiations.
Cohen also reported issues with the Board of Supervisors, pointing to a perception of favoritism and a need to clarify the policymaker and operations roles that they play. In terms of communication, Cohen explained that, “Anytime you are a leader, people assign the ‘parent’ to you … When you carry that parental power, those responding to parental power don’t always tell you the truth.”
Sigmund Freud would be delighted.
Upon concluding her presentation, Cohen opened the floor to questions and comments from the board and department heads in attendance. District 3 Supervisor Bob Gardner began by asking Cohen, who has undertaken similar projects for other counties and municipalities, what the common factors were for entities that succeed or fail at addressing employee well-being.
Cohen answered, “First is a commitment to projects and to staff. What we used to call work-life balance has changed to work-life integration. What can we offer on site that will allow someone to recharge?”
Robin Roberts, Mono County Behavioral Health Director, took the podium and gave an honest assessment of her experience to the room. “I can’t tell you how tired I am and exhausted by my job,” said Roberts. “It’s significant that we can talk in private to Beth but we’re not able to talk about this in front of you and each other.”
She continued, “I used to love my job … I don’t have the energy, I don’t think, to get on this train again.” Roberts referenced previous attempts to address staff well-being, noting that she’d been excited to work on those efforts, “but we haven’t gotten anywhere. We continue to have overwhelming jobs.” Roberts pushed for a hardline commitment to improving employee health and well-being, explaining that in recent months, departments have become even more siloed.
She concluded, “I’m really surprised by my reaction … but I think what I feel is instead tired, and I’m by far not the only one and somehow that makes me feel sad as opposed to ready to take on the next thing.”
Cohen responded, “Roles are limited to who you can talk to. My being here has allowed people to share more openly, they wanted me to know how it is that they’ve been affected. It’s systemic exhaustion, it’s not healthy. If you were in a county that wasn’t as remote, we would see the effect of that in turnover.”
District 2 Supervisor Fred Stump vented frustration he’d had with “a dichotomy between what I’d like to see and the resource to have it seen: nobody embodies that more than the staff.”
“It’s an exhausting mission and the state isn’t making it any easier, it’s making it more difficult,” said Stump. “It bothers me that I can’t tap into more resources…to create things that we need to be more healthy.”