Mental Health and Public Sector HR

Citing the National Comorbidity Study, authors of the February 2010 Harvard Mental Health Letter noted nearly one in five employed Americans ages 15-54 had experienced symptoms of a mental health disorder in the previous month. Younger workers appear to be particularly affected, as an article posted to the website of the American Psychological Association states the rate of adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who reported experiencing symptoms consistent with depression within the last 12 months increased by 63 percent from 2009 to 2017, rising from 8.1 percent during the first year to 13.2 percent.

Isolation and heightened uncertainty about our health and economic well-being resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our collective mental health. In fact, calls to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline increased 891 percent from March 2019 to March 2020.

It is likely we will all work alongside someone experiencing symptoms of a mental illness at some point in our careers. Among the roughly 23 million people who make up the public sector workforce, about 4.5 million will be affected this month.

Besides affecting an employee’s personal life, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental illness can impact job performance, job satisfaction, engagement, communication with coworkers and daily functioning. This matters because public sector agencies rely on healthy employees to provide services to their communities. Although protecting employees’ health is not strictly the domain of human resources, the function plays a critical role in supporting the well-being of any organization’s workforce.

Gathering data, improving policies and offering training and resources to support employees’ well-being will also produce measurable impacts on HR concerns such as retention, engagement and productivity. Improvements in those areas will, ultimately, drive the organization toward achieving its objectives.

For instance, offering a wide range of benefits shows an organization’s commitment to its employee’s well-being and future. Doing this also has a significant impact on employee recruiting and retention. A survey by the American Institute of CPAs found 80 percent of accounting professionals would choose a job with benefits over the same job offering a salary that was 30 percent higher but came with no benefits.

Mental Health Programs in the Public Sector

IPMA-HR explored topics related to mental health at federal, state and local government workplaces by conducting a survey of members during March 2021. We also looked into public sector HR’s role in providing mental health benefits, the effects of the pandemic and stressors affecting the HR professional.

Nearly every person responding to our survey reported their agency offers some type of mental health benefit. At 98 percent, employee assistance programs (EAPs) are the leading mental health resource found at public sector agencies. Health and fitness programs (63 percent) and substance abuse programs (47 percent) followed.

Although public agencies offer a variety of mental health programs, only 5 percent of HR professionals reported their agency measures the ROI of said programs. Only 16 percent reported collecting any data whatsoever related to employee mental health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for a larger conversation regarding mental health in the workplace. Nearly half of public sector HR professionals noted their agency responded to the crisis by providing additional mental health resources. Most (87 percent) reported their agencies increased communications about mental health, and over half (52 percent) hosted virtual informational sessions. Nearly a third (30 percent) added more mental health programs.

Although most public sector agencies offer mental health resources and nearly half responded with additional support during the pandemic, the public sector’s lack of data collection makes it hard to assess the effects these benefits have on employees’ well-being.

Cultural Beliefs on Mental Health

The American Psychiatric Association notes almost half of people with mental illnesses do not seek support, largely due to their fear of being treated differently or losing their job. Findings from the IPMA-HR survey confirm there is still a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness at public sector agencies. Only about a quarter of HR practitioners agreed their organization is a place where employees talk openly about mental health. On the opposite side of that, nearly two-fifths of survey respondents indicated they would be worried about their coworkers finding out they were dealing with a mental illness.

Fortunately, there are strategies to reduce the shame and stigma associated with mental illnesses. Ending Discrimination Against People With Mental and Substance Use Disorders from the National Academies of Sciences details effective evidence-based programs such as education and literacy campaigns, peer-to-peer services, advocacy and policy changes.

Public sector agencies are on the right track here. Nearly 70 percent of survey respondents reported having organizational leaders who are supportive or highly supportive of mental health initiatives. Even more telling, “communications and awareness campaigns” was rated as the top mental health resource HR practitioners would like their agency to offer. Mental illness management support programs such as stress management and depression/anxiety management were a very close second.

Stress in the HR Profession

During her presentation for the 2020 IPMA-HR Annual Conference, Regina Romeo, the chief human resources officer for CPS HR Consulting, spoke on compassion fatigue among HR professionals. Romeo defined compassion fatigue as a type of secondary trauma due to working with people who are themselves suffering emotional and mental trauma. Originally used to describe the unique type of burnout experienced by hospital nurses, the term is now used for any professional who is involved in caregiving. Stress Levels Graph

Symptoms of compassion fatigue may include emotional and mental exhaustion, reduced job satisfaction, feeling overwhelmed by the needs of others, feelings of hopelessness, low morale and difficulty sleeping. It is different from burnout because it is related to another person’s emotional distress and because one’s ability to care is affected.


Being responsible for the productivity, engagement and well-being of their organization’s most valuable resource has taken a toll on public sector HR professionals. In our survey, 67 percent of respondents reported experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue from work. The same percentage of respondents also reported feeling more stress at work since the pandemic started, and nearly 50 percent reported dealing with a mental health issue of their own.

An employee’s mental well-being directly impacts the organization’s ability to meet goals by improving or reducing productivity, absenteeism, overall workplace morale and talent retention. This makes investing in efforts to collect data on mental health and the use of its resources, as well as in developing communication strategies to reduce mental health stigma in the workplace, investments in the workforce and the agency itself.

Through its Equity and Inclusion lens, the HR20/20 Report calls on public sector HR practitioners to be data-driven and to “learn what barriers exist in the workplace that may limit opportunities for specific communities.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health distress, please call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.


Since mental illness is one of the most common health problems, with almost half of us experiencing it once in our lifetimes, it is crucial to establish an effective workplace mental health strategy. At the end of the day, doing this does more than support business goals; it supports humans. And as young mathematician and screenwriter Rutvik Oza reminds us, “We are humans first and resources later.”

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