US veterans affairs employees report not feeling emotionally supported during COVID-19

By on 16/05/2022 | Updated on 18/05/2022
A male nurse wearing scrubs sits down with his head bowed
The VHA said in its COVID-19 response plan that 19% of staff had reported burnout and 25% had experienced high or extreme stress levels. Photo by Jonathan Borba via Pexels

More than half (51%) of clinical staff at the US Veterans Health Administration (VHA) did not feel emotionally supported during the COVID-19 pandemic, while only 40% were aware of the support services available, according to a staff survey.

The results have prompted the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) – which conducted the survey – to call for a review of the processes by which COVID-19 emotional wellbeing resources were developed and disseminated and to take action to ensure employees are aware of available resources and the signs and potential risks of burnout.

The Veterans Health Administration is the VA’s largest division and the second largest division of the US federal government, employing more than 350,000 staff.

The survey, taken by about 8,000 VHA employees, also found that 38% of clinical respondents and 31% of non-clinical respondents felt their leaders were not responsive to their needs during the coronavirus pandemic.   

Read more: US unions demand COVID safeguards for federal staff

It found that only about one-quarter of respondents (27% of clinical staff and 24% of non-clinical staff) reported utilising support services. However, of those that did, 79% of clinical staff and 82% of non-clinical staff found the resources they used to be helpful.

The survey identified three main areas of concern, according to the OIG: a generally diminishing awareness of support from the top of the organisational hierarchy to the bottom; low uptake of support resources by leadership and frontline employees; and employee perception of inadequate support and responsiveness from leadership.

The OIG acknowledged the efforts of the VHA “in rapidly foreseeing and attempting to respond to the emotional wellbeing needs of VHA staff during the COVID-19 pandemic with the swift creation of extensive wellness-related resources”. However, it “concluded that greater leaders’ and employees’ awareness and encouragement could lead to increased utilisation of resources, a better sense of facility support for employees experiencing distress, and improved organisational resilience”.

High staff turnover rates

The results come amid the worst staff turnover rate at the VA in 15 years. The department anticipates that it will need to hire 15,000 nurses per year over the next five years.

The OIG said in its report that given the VHA reported in its COVID-19 response plan that 19% of staff had reported burnout and 25% of staff had experienced high or extreme stress levels associated with COVID-19, it “would expect VHA to be at risk for increased employee turnover”.  

The Office of the Under Secretary for Health’s Steven Lieberman said the VHA concurred with the OIG’s findings and provided an action plan to ensure increased awareness of available resources among employees and of the signs and risks of burnout.

“The VHA knows that burnout is an imperative organisational issue 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,” he wrote.

He drew attention to the Reducing Employee Burnout and Optimizing Organizational Thriving (REBOOT) Taskforce established in November 2021. He said the taskforce was in the process of vetting recommendations through feedback sessions with VHA staff and leaders and that a final set of recommendations would be presented to the VHA Governance Board later this month “to determine which shall be implemented as national efforts”.  

“The primary action in response to the OIG’s recommendation is to complete the work of the REBOOT Taskforce and finalise the plan for national implementation and resource hub efforts. Implementation efforts will be ongoing from there,” Lieberman wrote.  

The OIG said it would follow up on the planned actions “until they are completed”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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