News & Analysis

A Supportive Solution for Public Health Burnout

Headshot of Brian Ackerman, partner at Ascendient

Brian Ackerman

A carved wooden hand holds up a leaning tree, illustrating the need to support public health professional staff. Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash.|A bar graph showing the role of "professional fit" in public health burnout|A see-saw graphic shows a solution for public health burnout: increase administrative support, reduce the risk of professional staff departures

If you work in public health, you’ve surely experienced the burnout trend firsthand. Experts say state and local health departments have lost 15% of essential staff over the past decade, and 80,000 full-time workers are needed immediately just to provide “a minimum package of public health services.”

From analysts to epidemiologists, public health professionals have seen their workload soar. In many departments, two scientists are doing the work previously done by three – and they’re typically doing it with less administrative support.

Administrative jobs are disappearing all across the US business landscape, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting an 8% decline by 2031. But administrative jobs in public health are vanishing even faster, down 36% since 2017, according to the quadrennial PH WINS survey from the de Beaumont Foundation.

At Ascendient, we’ve been digging into the WINS data to inform our consulting work in public health strategy and organizational design. The survey stratifies responses by workers planning to stay in their jobs versus those planning to leave. When I look at those groups through the lens of workplace trends, two things jump out at me.

Want more insights on the PH WINS survey? Read our Q&A with researchers from the de Beaumont Foundation.

First, among survey respondents who say they plan to leave their job within a year, administrative support has fallen by 45%, while the industry as a whole has seen a decline of “just” 36%. That suggests burned-out professional staff are doing more “busy work” at the expense of the work they trained for.

Secondly, one of the biggest flags for a disaffected employee is professional “fit” – whether they are using their knowledge and skills in a productive way. If an employee agrees with the statement “I’m able to apply my talents and expertise,” there’s about an eight-in-ten chance she’s planning to stay on the job. But if she disagrees with that statement, there’s a better-than-even chance she is already planning her escape.

A bar graph showing the role of "professional fit" in public health burnout
Supporting a Sense of Professional Purpose

So, let’s connect the dots: Employees at the highest risk of leaving believe the job doesn’t fit their professional skills, and they work in offices with lower levels of administrative support. By increasing the latter, can you reduce the former? It’s a low-risk intervention, at the very least.

According to BLS, the median pay for administrative assistants is $19.08 per hour, and with the right organizational design, one admin could support a half-dozen professional staff. Technology can help too. From virtual assistants to ChatGPT, administrative tasks are ripe for innovation.

That seems like a smart investment because people who choose a career in public health generally aren't in it for the money. They want to believe their skills and know-how are making a positive difference in the world, but then they come to work every day and find themselves doing administrative tasks.

Under-paid and under-utilized? That combination can be a career killer.

I realize there’s no single cause of public health burnout, but the single easiest solution might be to reconnect professional staff with a sense of purpose in their daily work – and reducing the administrative burden is a key part of that strategy.

A see-saw graphic shows a solution for public health burnout: increase administrative support, reduce the risk of professional staff departures

If your agency is facing a workforce crisis, we can help. Reach out today to learn more about our work in public health strategy, organizational design, and workforce development.