Back to the Jul-Aug 2021 issue

The Role of Leaders in Employee and Organizational Well-Being

By David Unmacht

David Unmacht

Note: This is the first in a two-part column on employee and organizational well-being. The second column will focus on ideas and actions for leaders.

Last winter, in the depths of the pandemic’s second wave, I took the opportunity to declutter a portion of my life — recycle, donate, and throw away things I have saved. Some items were hard to part with. Others, like old public administration textbooks, have little value after all these years. All gone now and not missed!

Over the past 10 years, I have had the privilege to teach graduate school courses in public administration at two universities. My areas of expertise are strategic planning, ethics, and organization and system change. With narrow exceptions, I proudly shun textbooks for case studies, stories, and guest speakers. Students thrive on real-life examples. That teaching method works best for me.

The practice of public administration is changing before our eyes, like no time ever in my career. Priorities and responsibilities of leaders are shifting. For example, no textbook adequately captures the emerging importance of individual and organizational well-being (mental and physical health) as a recognized and legitimate leadership responsibility. The need has always been there, but the awareness and obligation to understand and lead in this area is new.

The future health and welfare of our people and organizations require our time and attention.What changed? Brought on and exacerbated by the trifecta of a pandemic, social unrest, and political instability, together with long periods of workplace separation, there’s been an increase in mental illness. The hearts and minds of our people require our time and attention. The future health and welfare of our people and organizations require our time and attention.

We learn through the school of hard knocks about sewers, streets, budgets, comprehensive plans, fire and police service, water towers, and park programs — the aspects of work you touch repeatedly. But what about less tangible aspects that involve people, psychology, and physiology? For most practitioners, elected and appointed, the ability to lead in this area requires learning new skills and behaviors.

Through countless conversations with city officials in our fall and spring mini-meetings, with League staff, with my close friends and family, I’ve learned that societal demands and pressures are taking a toll on our mental and physical well-being. Articles on these trends are being continuously written and published. Common references might involve work-life imbalance, lack of connectivity with co-workers, shifting priorities and more responsibilities, and pandemic pounds.

One clear worrisome trend that has a direct correlation to workplace health is a refrain I’ve not typically heard in my career: “This work is not much fun anymore.” I am hearing it more and more often. Job stress, public pressure, and social media chatter have many city leaders anxious and even edgy.

What makes addressing these issues difficult and complicated is that everyone is unique and different; playbooks must be flexible. For example, working from home may be great for one person, and very difficult and stressful for another.

Let’s look to public safety as a barometer. Public safety has been front and center in responding to the pandemic, along with the social and political unrest. The emergence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has changed our thoughts on this line of work forever. Advising public safety staff to “Pick yourself up and get back in there” is not an option.

PTSD is real and has implications for services, recruitment, retention, organizational health, and financial costs. The League’s Insurance Trust has made a priority of PTSD awareness and education. Coaching and advising city officials to understand their roles and responsibilities to help prevent problems and deal with concerns professionally is an essential step to address implications, a step that is challenging for public safety and requires culture changes in the profession.

Quick fixes may seem tempting when it comes to individuals, but they lack institutional benefit and do not reflect system change. The future of public safety rests on understanding how the mental and physical aspects of their work impact those in the field, as well as individuals considering a career in this profession.

The same is true for all your city employees. Whether you manage a small staff of one or a few, or a larger organization, the beginning of change starts with awareness. Leaders can and must act; even small steps can make a difference that leads to benefits for you, your staff, and your organization. That is the topic for my next column.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dunmacht@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.