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Tennessee Keeps Workforce Connected and Mentally Healthy

The pandemic and its repercussions have magnified the importance of mental health. The crisis has accelerated a kind of workplace where anyone can work from anywhere. But it has also unveiled the need to help isolated, distributed employees stay mentally healthy.

“I think we’re realizing that the mental aspect of this pandemic is something that we need to address and not ignore,” said Stephanie Dedmon, Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the state of Tennessee.

It takes both individual and enterprise actions to help employees be mentally healthy. In a recent GovLoop interview, Dedmon spoke about her efforts as an IT supervisor to keep her team mentally healthy, as well as the government’s actions to provide tools and extend flexibilities in a time of crisis.

The following interview was slightly edited for clarity and brevity.

GOVLOOP: When it comes to the workforce being and feeling connected, how does an office compare to remote work?

Dedmon: Our state has had a formal work-from-home process for a number of years. My team has worked hard to provide all of the appropriate collaboration tools that enable a person working from home to 1) do their job and be productive and 2) stay connected. But what we find is that you have to make an extra effort as a supervisor, as a manager, to reach out and make sure that your employees feel connected. I think the challenges are just making sure that you make time for that.

If I don’t have a scheduled call with my direct reports, I try to reach out by phone, by email, and ask, “How are you doing? What’s going on this week? How can I be helpful?” I think we’re recognizing that the mental aspect of this pandemic is something that we need to address and not ignore. We need to make sure that we check in on people more frequently than we might normally.

Have there been any agencywide initiatives around employees’ mental health?

We’ve shared webinars on stress and mental health with the workforce. Like so many things, I think verbalizing and recognizing that it’s a struggle — and we’re all struggling in different ways — is important. In this day and age, we have to talk about it, recognize it and make sure we give people tools and access to additional help.

We’ve leveraged our employee assistance program to provide things like noontime yoga or energizers. We encourage people to schedule those with your team, whether that’s a group of five or 20. Be purposeful in putting that on the calendar, encourage people to attend remotely, and spend 15 or 30 minutes in something that’s not work-related, that physically helps people refresh and do something besides sit at their desk and talk to their computer.

How has the agency approached working with employees who have to care for children at home?

Something that our enterprise Department of Human Resources did — I think at the governor and his leadership team’s suggestion — is that we relax requirements, knowing that clearly, many people have children at home.

As part of our formal work-from-home program, it wasn’t really acceptable to say that you don’t have childcare and work from home while you have children at home. But we have relaxed that requirement and formally asked supervisors to be more flexible on people’s schedules. Allow people to work when they can, and when they need to care for children or be teachers, as the case has been, make sure employees understand that’s OK. That we trust them, and we want them to be able to do what they need to do for their families.

What kinds of factors can you attribute to employees being resilient and staying engaged in their work?

I’m not sure that I can necessarily put my finger on it. Not to minimize the impact that the tornado had on middle and east Tennessee in early March, but we occasionally joke that that was a dry run for the pandemic that was to come. I think, honestly, having gone through the tornado, a lot of our folks were like, “OK, we’ve dealt with that. Now we can deal with the pandemic.”

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent report, “The Connected Employee: Ensuring the Security and Resilience of Government Operations.” Download the full report here.

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