The Limits of Resilience: A Need to Rebuild Mental Health and Well-being within the Public Health Community

There is an urgent need to rebuild mental health and well-being within the public health workforce.

As the sounds of ambulances and the hum of freezer trucks echoed through New York City in the spring of 2020, millions of health workers and essential workers stepped out of their homes into an unprecedented public health crisis. The public health workforce rose up to respond and remained at their posts as the months and years passed. We ran together at this rapid pace, and we watched each other succumb to fatigue, burn out, and exhaustion. Our numbers started to dwindle. By March 2021, a CDC survey described a public health workforce in which more than half of respondents reported symptoms of at least one adverse mental health challenge over the preceding two weeks. Later that year, PH WINS 2021 highlighted in detail the alarming state of well-being among the public health community and identified numerous workforce challenges that urgently need to be addressed. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic response continues on, and other public health emergencies demand responses, including overdose deaths, natural disasters, Mpox, RSV, and polio. Since March 2020, we have seen setbacks in life expectancy, chronic disease management, the strength of our health system, and the confidence in public health — all of which require robust public health action.

Read: Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey 2021 (PH WINS)

As we embark on a new year, while we hope that these data result in positive action, our greatest hope is that all of the people who served during the response — public health workers, health workers, essential workers, and more — will have time, space, and resources to heal. That healing, however, cannot occur in an environment that saps the tremendous drive, dedication, intelligence, and excellence of public health workers. There is ample opportunity to learn from the experiences of the pandemic response to save our public health workforce and the systems they work in. The United States Surgeon General recently released a Framework for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being, which can guide us as we build stronger, healthier work environments. In addition, we urge the public health community to consider the following key actions:

  • Build internal tracks to leadership for staff from communities that are heavily impacted in emergencies.
  • Transform COVID-19 temporary public health workers into a new public health workforce.
  • Develop a dynamic public health emergency response infrastructure.
  • Build resilience in essential basic public health functions.
  • Create trauma-responsive environments for the public health workforce.

We want to thank every single person we had the great opportunity to interact with during the COVID-19 response, the people of New York City, and the incredible team of people who served on and advised the COVID-19 Integrated Data Team. We would not have made it a single day without you, your excellence, your support, and your kindness.

Read Our Article in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice:

Jaimie Shaff served as the Chief Data Scientist for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s COVID-19 response. In 2021, Jaimie was recognized by the de Beaumont Foundation as a 40 Under 40 in Public Health honoree.

Madhury Ray served as the Health Equity Data Lead for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s COVID-19 response. In 2021, Madhury was recognized by the de Beaumont Foundation as a 40 Under 40 in Public Health honoree.