Two agencies on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic—the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—had vastly different employee experiences in 2020, according to the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings.
NIH remained steady in the 2020 rankings, recording a Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 81.7 out of 100 and ranked 63 out of 411 agency subcomponents—similar to where it has landed each of the past three years. The CDC, however, plummeted to a rank of 192, down from 81 in 2019, with a score of 72.4. The sharp drop led to the lowest ranking for the CDC since the Best Places to Work rankings began, although its employee engagement score is still above the government-wide tally of 69.
The CDC faced tremendous pressure to handle the unprecedented health crisis. “We always have one emergency or another, but we have never had, in our 75-year history, a pandemic of this magnitude,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC’s principal deputy director, who is retiring this summer.
The agency also faced a barrage of media stories on early mishandling of COVID-19 tests along with political interference in its report releases and publications, a situation that “has taken a toll,” Schuchat said. Criticism of the agency has been “hard on the staff,” she added. “They know how hard they’re working and how hard their peers are working.”
Since becoming director of the CDC in January 2021, Dr. Rochelle Walensky has worked to engage the workforce and boost morale by opening lines of communication and making clear that “science and data will lead what we do,” according to Dr. Robert Goldstein, a CDC senior policy adviser.
Goldstein said that as of June 2021, Walensky held “three all hands meetings to speak directly to the staff, answer their questions and address their concerns.” He said Walensky also has been continually holding meetings with each national center, institute and office across the CDC to get employee input.
In addition, Goldstein said the CDC has embarked on evaluations of senior and division leaders that are focused on stepping up efforts to “improve the work environment” and to determine the resources needed to better engage employees and meet their needs. He said some areas of focus include health and wellness, building resiliency and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, adding that leaders will be held accountable for addressing these and other workplace issues.
Schuchat said one focus of employee engagement in 2020 centered about COVID-19 itself “because we have the expertise to help our workforce.” She said employees could get answers to questions about the pandemic and share them with their families and be ambassadors in their communities.
The CDC earned a Best Places to Work score of 91.4 out of 100 in the new COVID-19 employee response category that measured whether employees felt their organization supported their mental and physical well-being, provided the resources they needed to do their work, communicated effectively, and delivered on the mission. The CDC exceeded the government-wide score of 86.1 in this workplace category.
The National Institutes of Health
The National Institutes of Health found there was no better or easier time to get employees behind its mission than during COVID-19, said Beth Chandler, deputy director with the Office of Human Resources—leading to high marks in the employee COVID-19 response category with a score of 94.2 out of 100.
One of the keys to employee engagement at NIH in 2020 was making sure everyone across the organization understood they were part of the effort to fight COVID-19, whether they worked in the hospital, the lab or in an administrative or facilities position, Chandler said.
“All the communications always drove home that we’re all in this together,” she said. Contact flowed through emails, meetings and a website for employees dedicated to research on and resources for COVID-19. In addition, Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH director, participated in weekly video interviews with staff members from his home to their homes, and those continue on a biweekly basis.
“We focused on the whole employee and tried to provide as many resources as we could to help them,” Chandler said. That included work flexibility, and technology and training for working virtually.
Mental health and safety were also “of paramount concern,” Chandler added. “It was very clear leadership wanted to communicate a lot about safety being a priority, because we had a lot of staff on-site.” In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health provided trained psychologists to take calls from people who needed support.
The agency learned many important lessons in the past year, Chandler said, including that it pays to take care of employees and that “you can never overcommunicate.”
To keep employee engagement strong in the future, the agency has project teams examining workforce issues, infrastructure support and services, space, administration functions, technology and tools, and safety, according to Kristen Dunn-Thomason, director of the Workforce Support and Development Division.
“People are clearly wanting more flexibility and more telework,” she said, adding that NIH needs to figure out how to offer that “with all the support and infrastructure and thoughtfulness to do it right”—including, for example, how to hold hybrid meetings when some people are at the workplace, and some are not. “What does it mean to really build, develop, nurture relationships among colleagues in a longer-term scenario,” Dunn-Thomason explained.
Engagement is a “huge priority” for the organization overall, Dunn-Thomason said.
The priority starts at the top and emanates from around the organization through a 150-member group with representatives from each NIH institute and center, said Anait Freeman, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey program manager.
The group focuses on employee engagement and workforce management functions across NIH, analyzing data to find ways to improve. “It’s not just from the leadership perspective, but also from the ground up,” Freeman said.
This profile was written by Partnership for Public Service staff member Ellen Perlman