Government and the Stress Mess

Layoffs and furloughs are taking a toll on those who are still on the job.
December 2009
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

There are lots of victims of the painful fiscal times in which states and localities now live. The public faces service declines or tax increases--or both. A lot of state and local employees have lost their jobs outright. Then there are the men and women who are left minding the store. They still have their jobs, but now they've got to take up the slack left by layoffs or furloughs. And that's just the beginning.

Even as many worry about whether they'll still be employed next month, they are confronting one of the sad truths of government: The less money a city, state or county has, the more work its employees have to do. You can see this most noticeably in any agency that works with the poor or unemployed. The tougher the economy, the faster grow the caseloads for Medicaid and other programs that help the needy and newly needy. And the less effective is the process of helping them out.

Charles Evans Hughes, former chief justice of the United States, famously observed that "men do not die from overwork." But even if public-sector workers aren't keeling over in city halls and statehouses, a good number are suffering from a pernicious ailment that can damage their psyches and take a toll on productivity: burnout.

Consider what's happening in Nevada, where the overall unemployment rate is now at 13.2 percent. In the past year, the caseload for that state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has grown 30 percent; the Medicaid caseload, 20 percent; and the food-stamp caseload, 45 percent. When eligibility workers in larger district offices in Las Vegas and Reno open the doors in the morning, there are already 100 to 125 people standing in line. Meanwhile, all government workers--including Medicaid and TANF caseworkers--now are required to take off one day a month. The result: Employees have seen their portfolios expand like a balloon that's about to pop, and the clients they see are frustrated and angry about the long waits they have to endure.

"Imagine you are used to dealing with 300 case jackets. Now, you're dealing with 800," says Romaine Gilliland, administrator of the division of welfare and supportive services in Nevada. "It's an emotional drain. Imagine you are a highly ethical, motivated employee who likes to be caught up. Now you're not able to catch up, and quality and timeliness are being compromised."

In fact, sad to say, it may well be that the best workers are the most vulnerable to burning out. Social scientists and psychologists who have studied the topic have theorized that the most motivated workers suffer the greatest psychological damage when they simply can't do a really good job anymore--there's just too much work for one person to do competently. We talked to Thomas Britt, a psychology professor at Clemson University who studies employee engagement and the burnout phenomenon. He agreed that employees who really care about their work and about their job performance may be most affected. That's because, he said, "they stake part of their identity on how well they do."

While there may be little that managers can do to alleviate the underlying causes of the stress, they can make efforts to reduce the impact of burnout. In Nevada, Gilliland has been taking steps to ease the tension among clients, which should, in turn, help government workers. A lobby-management system, for example, has been set up that logs in individuals and lets them know they will be dealt with efficiently, even if it takes time. "That creates an environment," he says, "where each client recognizes we're trying to help them."

The person in need benefits, of course, but so do the workers. "If you have a client who is not as agitated," Gilliland says, "it translates into less stress on the staff."

This overload issue shows up in other ways. Kathy Williams, the assistant director of the South Carolina Association of Counties, has worked in local government for 35 years and doesn't remember a time when the political, economic and time pressures were so intense. As a result, she's seen several South Carolina counties in which the county administrators abruptly left their positions.

In some cases, government managers also have been the recipients of nasty Internet-based personal attacks, a situation that makes these folks feel deeply unappreciated. "I don't recall a time when we've had as many vacancies in both city and county government as we do now," Williams says. "The stress factor is just huge."