Most VA employees say they were not emotionally supported during pandemic

Robert Alexander/Getty Images

With turnover at the agency soaring, the front-line staff were largely unaware of VA's offerings to support employee well-being, new survey finds.

Front-line employees at the Veterans Affairs Department are reporting high levels of stress and limited assistance to deal with their mental health, according to a new survey by the agency’s inspector general, contributing to VA's record-high turnover. 

While VA took several steps since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic to address employee well-being, the workforce remained largely unaware of those efforts. Regional and facility leadership overwhelmingly reported to the IG that they knew about the department’s steps to address employees’ mental health needs, but that largely did not trickle down to the clinical staff. Just 40% of the health care staff knew about efforts to provide emotional support resources. 

Middle management similarly appeared unaware of the resources made available for them. Just 12% of “service-line leadership” said they knew about the “rapid response consultations” VA offered during the pandemic to provide assistance to the supervisors for leading in a virtual environment and meeting employee support needs. 

Just 38% of clinical staff said management was responsive to their concerns during the pandemic. A slight majority of those workers said VA was not adequately providing emotional support. The IG received responses from more than 8,000 employees for its survey. 

From its initial COVID-19 response plan, VA recognized it would need to account for employee “recovery” and set out to provide additional mental health services for staff. The department's National Center for Organizational Development led the effort, though several offices—such as its chaplain service and the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention—were also involved. VA installed employee support teams at facilities, solicited employee reflection videos, launched webinars on self-care and established a “wall of honor” for employees who died from COVID-19. Those who engaged with VA’s offerings generally found them to be helpful, the IG found. 

“Greater awareness and encouragement could lead to increased utilization of resources, a better sense of facility support for employees experiencing distress, and improved organizational resilience,” the auditors said. 

VA conducted its own survey in December, frontline staff “exhibited a diminished capacity to deal with the stresses and demands of the work environment.” About one-in-five workers said they were experiencing more burnout than usual and one-in-four said they felt high or extreme levels of stress from the pandemic. Overly stressed employees frequently engaged in “interpersonal challenges and conflict,” VA said. 

In November, VA launched its Reducing Employee Burnout and Optimizing Organizational Thriving (REBOOT) Task Force to help improve worker well-being and reduce turnover. In response to the IG’s findings, VA said the task force is already working on addressing the issues identified in the report and is focused on “supporting the individual resilience of employees.” 

“The VHA recognized in the second half of FY21 that there needed to be a more strategic approach to supporting employees that addressed not just the employee well-being factors connected with burnout, but also the organizational design factors that are major contributors to burnout as well,” VA said. 

In a speech in February, VA Secretary Denis McDonough acknowledged that VA was losing employees to burnout and announced 10 steps to better reward the workforce. Those included upping retention bonuses and lifting the caps on some employees' pay. VA is currently experiencing its worst turnover rate in 15 years, and is anticipating needing to hire 15,000 nurses per year for the next five years.

“You’ve had to cover for thousands of colleagues who were sick and unable to work, meaning even longer hours and later nights,” the secretary said. 

VA employees have since the outset of the pandemic complained of dire and, at times, unsafe working conditions, though most have acknowledged things have largely improved since those first months. Still, many facilities experienced staffing shortages, especially as new waves of the pandemic forced thousands of employees to miss work at any given time. VA said its task force is currently soliciting and evaluating recommendations and hopes to implement changes by December. 

“The VHA knows that burnout is an imperative organizational issue,” the department said, “and is committed to implementing actions to address system stressors that contribute to burnout as well as promoting initiatives that foster joy and wellbeing in the workplace.”

This article was published first on GovExec, a FederalSoup partner site ("As turnover soars, most VA employees say they were not emotionally supported during the pandemic.") 

NEXT STORY: EEOC union decries agency’s unilateral decision to return to office

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.