The Public Health Worker Mental Health Crisis: A Major Leadership Challenge

This entry is part 13 of 17 in the series Management Moments

A snapshot of the scope of the mental health crisis and what public health leaders can do to mitigate the impact of this crisis on the public health workforce.

As we move into the fall of 2021, public health leaders are faced with a dual crisis. First, responding to the evolving challenges of the COVID pandemic continues to be “job one” for most public health leaders. Now, a parallel crisis is emerging as the public health workforce experiences unprecedented levels of poor mental health as they experience “COVID fatigue,” burnout, and a range of mental health challenges. Some have applied the concept of moral injury, a term that refers to “the psychological, behavioral, social, and/or spiritual distress experienced by individuals who are performing or exposed to actions that contradict their moral values,” to characterize this mental health crisis.

In a new Management Moment column in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, we offer a snapshot of the scope of the mental health crisis and encourage public health leaders to acknowledge the nature and extent of the crisis and then act to mitigate the impact of this crisis on the public health workforce. We encourage leaders to forge a collective mindset to restore work routines, foster recovery, and promote renewal of spirit and commitment. Further, leaders must model ways in which they themselves seek occasions to restore their own spirit (eg, by finding ways to simply find joy in everyday life) and to reflect on their own commitments to serving the health of the public.

We provide a few practical tips for public health leaders committed to addressing the mental health crisis in the public health workforce related to managing time, setting limits, carefully setting priorities, celebrating small successes, encouraging staff to seek support as needed, developing an organizational code of conduct, and monitoring the mental health of the workforce systematically.

In a recent interview, Dr. Wiesman candidly discussed how he experienced these challenges and how he developed and shared strategies (which are covered in our column) for mitigating the impact of these stresses when he served as Secretary of Health in the state of Washington.

Addressing this challenge will be no less daunting than addressing the extraordinary challenges of the COVID-19 response itself. In doing so, however, public health leaders can renew their dedication and commitment to service which has characterized the public health workforce in the past and will be central to success for many decades to come.

Read the full column, “The Public Health Worker Mental Health Crisis,” in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 

John Wiesman, DrPH, MPH, is a Professor of the Practice in the Department of Health Policy and Management (HPM) at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health where he serves as the program director of the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program in health leadership. He brings 30 years of governmental public health practice to the Department. Dr. Wiesman is an accomplished transformational leader who focuses on system approaches to improving the public’s health.

Edward L. Baker, MD, MPH, currently serves as Adjunct Professor at UNC, Harvard, and Indiana University schools of public health. Previously, he served as Director of the North Carolina Institute for Public Health at UNC, Assistant Surgeon General in the US Public Health Service, Director of CDC’s Public Heath Practice Program Office, Deputy Director of NIOSH, and Associate Professor of Occupational Health at Harvard.

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