By Eric Ruble
Working for local government can be a grind.
New research out of USC Price shows that burnout is a leading reason why local governments are struggling to keep workers and operate effectively. Moreover, it revealed that racial groups underrepresented in the workforce are the most overworked.
And if the trend is not reversed and employees continue to leave their jobs, local governments could become increasingly hard-pressed to provide essential services.
The research is being published in a series of papers in several academic journals. The first paper was published this month in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. The studies were co-authored by Associate Professor Bill Resh, Price Ph.D. candidates Cynthia Barboza-Wilkes and Esther Gonzalez, and Price Ph.D. graduates Dr. Thai Le and Dr. Brian An.
The influence of emotional labor
The researchers recommend that governments provide employees with more resources and training to reduce emotional labor, the emotional effort required to consistently meet constituents where they are and provide key services. Resh explained that local governments must understand that many citizen-facing jobs do not simply require “hard” skills, like speaking another language – they require “soft” skills, like being able to interact with frustrated members of the public for hours at a time.
“Emotional labor becomes the most prominent skillset and asset necessary for success in those positions, particularly during a pandemic – during times of crisis,” he said.
The team started investigating this topic in 2018 by surveying local government workers in Los Angeles County, with the majority of respondents working in the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach. While the government regularly surveys federal workers about their experiences and workplace conditions, no such examination exists for municipal employees. Respondents worked in a wide spectrum of fields, from first responders to social workers and Department of Motor Vehicle employees.
Their data showed that employees generally felt overworked; and those from underrepresented groups in the workforce – people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community – were most overwhelmed. Overall, young women of color were most vulnerable to burnout.
“Those who have marginalized identities generally in society are less able to depend on peers for emotional support during this time,” Resh said. “We found that the more traditionally disadvantaged identities you shared, the more you were working uncompensated hours. That was translating into emotional burnout.”
Additionally, the researchers’ survey found that red tape between a government worker and the public compounded burnout and impeded efficiency. Long wait times and outdated technology often associated with the DMV – as reported in a 2019 audit – is one example.
“Those administrative burdens are frustrations generally, not just for the citizens but also for the employee who is trying to help,” Resh said.
A complex problem worsened by the pandemic
When COVID-19 forced nationwide lockdowns in the spring of 2020, the team saw an opportunity to analyze how the pandemic was impacting non-federal government employees on the front lines. Barboza-Wilkes was the principal investigator who designed a mixed-methods research plan to revisit the 2018 survey respondents. In April 2020, shortly after stay-at-home orders were issued, they launched a diary study along with interviews to understand the emotional toll of COVID-19.
Gonzalez and master’s student Stephanie Wong provided significant analytical support by going through daily diary entries from local public servants as they worked through the pandemic. They asked respondents a mix of open-ended questions and more quantitative ones, such as asking employees how much time they spent interacting with the public. They also asked workers if there was a part of their identity or background that could not be defined in a simple word or label.
“The responses to that question were super interesting,” Barboza-Wilkes said. “You see how being an immigrant or first-generation in this country, coming from a different environment where life-and-death decisions are being made about why you’re deciding to come to the United States just creates a reference point for how you navigate crisis.”
The team received more than 1,500 diary entries over the course of three weeks. Gonzalez said the richness of the data – specifically, being able to follow up with interview subjects – provided an in-depth look at the problem.
“That’s insightful and also has great utility in terms of thinking about how organizations can better prepare themselves for crisis management and avoiding employee burnout, especially when this is the workforce that we depend on to get us out of a crisis,” Gonzalez said.
The diary unveiled disconcerting findings about the difficulties experienced by those who are “neuro-divergent,” such as autism, attention deficit disorders or dyslexia.
“Dyslexia is really consequential for a workforce that’s transitioning to predominantly teleworking and text-based communication,” Barboza-Wilkes said. “It presents a different set of challenges and the accommodations that would have been in place for in-person work just weren’t there.”
“Looking at differences between groups – but also within groups at the intersection of different identities – really helps us understand how any group we try to label is truly a coalition of subgroups with important nuances as it relates to burnout,” Barboza-Wilkes said. For example, because anti-Asian discrimination increased during the pandemic, those respondents had distinct burdens.
Solutions for local policymakers
The team’s findings were specific: local government workers were exhausted and demoralized. Civil servants, public health workers, teachers, first responders and countless others were struggling to keep up with their demanding jobs.
But what can local policymakers do?
Resh says governments must provide employees with the resources they need to stay mentally well. Otherwise, they will continue losing workers and struggle to hire new ones.
“It’s best to be explicit and provide resources and training for the types of emotional labor in which these people are engaged,” Resh said.
Specifically, Resh says governments cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to diversity, equity and inclusion training.
“We argue that racial, gender and generational identities all have localized histories. Because of those regional nuances, we encourage organizational leaders to understand that there will likely be differences in burnout for different subgroups across various geopolitical contexts,” he explained. “Our work shows that differences between and within groups do exist, and leaders must be culturally cognizant of their institutions’ external environments that perpetuate those differences.”
Barboza-Wilkes and Gonzalez said that while it is critical for local governments to reflect their communities, maintaining a diverse workforce will be difficult if minority groups deal with more stress than their peers.
“Certain groups are systematically going to burn out and it’s going to be really hard to retain [them],” Gonzalez said.
If these issues are not addressed, the impact will be felt not only within the public workforce, but by people across the country who rely on government services to keep the nation running.
“We depend much more on local government workers – frontline workers – than we do on policymakers,” Resh said. “I hope that policymakers take away that the level of emotional labor that is incurred by street-level bureaucrats within local governments can aggregate to real policy implications.”
C.C. Crawford Professor in Management and Performance