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To Support Employee Mental Health, Local Governments Think Creatively

4 smiling young professionals standing arm in arm

How can you support your employees’ mental health at work? According to the Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being, five elements are key to mentally healthy workplaces:  

  • Protection from Harm — Employees should feel safe and secure in their employment.
  • Connection and Community — Professionals need social support and belonging.
  • Work-Life Harmony — Employees want autonomy, flexibility, and integration between their professional and personal roles.
  • Mattering at Work — Employees desire meaningful work and want to feel like their efforts are recognized.
  • Opportunity for Growth — Employees want to grow professionally and have a sense of accomplishment.

How many employees feel that their workplaces meet these expectations? A post-pandemic survey found that stress was still a significant mental health concern for many respondents, with 77% of participants reporting workplace stress and 57% noting burnout-related symptoms like emotional exhaustion (31%) and a “desire to keep to themselves” (25%). However, the respondents mostly thought highly about their employers’ mental health supports, with 36% reporting being very satisfied and another 41% reporting being somewhat satisfied.

What types of workplace initiatives support employees’ mental health? Here are four examples from Washington cities and counties.

Internally Operated Wellness Program — City of Oak Harbor

Employee wellness programs are supposed to promote mental and physical health. However, many wellness programs aren’t as successful as they could be because they have high barriers to entry. For these initiatives to be meaningful, employees should recognize the program’s value and want to participate.

Oak Harbor’s Wellness Program is overseen by a committee of city employees. Aiming to be as inclusive as possible, the committee invites representatives from each department to ensure initiatives meet the staff’s unique needs. Committee representatives are further diversified by staggering meeting hours.

The Wellness Committee also encourages robust employee participation. For instance, they send out surveys for feedback from employees who can’t attend meetings and deliver lunches to shift workers who don’t work during daytime hours.

Wellness Committee member and city Public Records Officer Alanna Lake thinks that employees’ direction over the program has set it apart from similar initiatives.

“Any time you have more investment or ownership over a project, you tend to have more pride in it, and therefore have more success. I think if our program were directed more heavily by outside sources, it could potentially be less effective because it might be less in touch with the actual needs of our particular staff,” said Lake.

32-Hour Work Week — San Juan County

Shorter workweeks diminish employees’ stress and burnout. A recent U.K. program involving 61 companies and nearly 3,000 employees explored the impact of a four-day workweek on employee morale and productivity. Around 40% of respondents reported less stress, 71% said they were less burnt out, and more than 40% noted improvements in their mental health.

The participating companies didn’t lose out on productivity either, with reported revenue increasing by 1% during the pilot program. Accordingly, nearly all of the participating companies planned to continue operating on shorter workweeks.

Though the shift to the four-day workweek is becoming more common in the private sector, fewer governmental organizations have made the change. In Washington, however, one county is experimenting with a 32-hour workweek: San Juan County initiated a pilot program in October, 2023, adopting an 100/80/100 rule: “an employee receives 100% of their pay, for 80% of the hours, for 100% of the output,” the county explains.

Logistically, county offices may adjust their hours each week, or they may close one day of the workweek, as long as they publish these changes for the public and maintain them indefinitely. Sheriff’s deputies and emergency services are exempted.

“The workplace of today is not the same workplace that existed even two years ago – retention, work-life balance, compensation, and remote work, are all issues the County must accommodate in order to maintain a workforce. San Juan County is choosing to support the whole person – not just the employee,” County Manager Mike Thomas said in a press release.

Whole-Person Wellness Program — City of Lacey

Positive mental health doesn’t exist in isolation. Instead, physical and mental health are linked. For instance, fruit and vegetable consumption improves psychological health, and physical activity decreases anxiety and depression.

This is why Lacey’s Wellness Program supports both mental and physical health initiatives. One is the Workplace Wellness Farmshare, a 10-week partnership with the Southwest Washington Food Hub where employees sign up to receive fresh produce at work.

“Research has shown that food and mental health go hand-in-hand, but mostly I think it’s something for employees to look forward to every week and can alleviate stress of grocery shopping for a day or two,” said Alyssa Dolan-Carer, the city’s Wellness Coordinator.

The Wellness Committee also chooses a food of the month, like blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries, that they then deliver to city employees each month.

Lacey also encourages movement with its Mileage Club. Employees track how much they’ve walked or run every month, receiving gift cards each time they hit certain milestones.

“This is a great program for hard-to-reach groups that may not be able to participate in other events we organize. This also encourages employees to be active and even take walking breaks throughout the day to help reset their mind and move their bodies,” said Dolan-Carer.

Peer Support — Thurston County’s Firefighters Helping Firefighters

First responders have a high risk of facing mental health crises. According to the CDC, these professionals are more likely to die by suicide than on duty.

Thurston County’s Peer Support Consortium builds connections among professionals under a considerable amount of stress: firefighters. Each year, the program brings in mental health counselors and trainers to coach team members on becoming peer support mentors.

Many other cities and counties offer similar programs for firefighters, EMTs, and other frontline workers, as well. The idea is that professionals who have faced similar stressors feel more comfortable talking with one another than outsiders.

For some, sharing their mental health struggles may still feel taboo, and peer programs like these destigmatize discussing stress, anxiety, and depression.

“It’s something that we need to talk about, and if you speak to it, it’s okay to know that others around you are struggling and we can all pick each other up and move forward,” Rian Winter, Thurston County Peer Support Group lead and EMS lieutenant, told The Olympian.

Implementing Mental Health and Well-Being Initiatives in Your Jurisdiction

Employees need to feel safe and connected to others in their workplaces. They also want to maintain work-life balance, perform meaningful work, and grow professionally.

Municipalities around the state are boosting employee mental wellness in a variety of ways, from creating employee-led wellness programs to offering more time off and developing peer support groups.

These are just a few examples of successful mental health initiatives in Washington. Soliciting employee feedback on what impacts your team’s mental health is the best way to create meaningful wellness initiatives at your agency.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Alicia Bones

Alicia Bones started at MRSC as a research analyst and writer in fall of 2023. Before joining the communications team, she worked as a composition and research methods instructor at several Seattle-area community colleges, as well as a freelance research writer for business and education clients. She holds graduate degrees in English, creative writing, and higher education administration.