Over Half of VA Health Employees Report Not Feeling Supported During Pandemic

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Nurses outside the Brooklyn Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Members of the National Nurses Association outside the Brooklyn Veterans Administration Medical Center, April 6, 2020, in New York, where they called for more personal protective equipment (PPE) and staffing assistance to care for those affected by the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

More than half of the clinical staff at the Veterans Health Administration reported not feeling emotionally supported during the pandemic, according to a survey in a recent Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general report.

The report, released May 10, also found that less than half of clinical and nonclinical VHA staff were even aware of the agency's emotional support resources.

As the nation's largest health care system, the VHA employs more than 350,000 people, over 8,000 of whom responded to the survey.

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Many people in the workforce have experienced some level of emotional distress over the course of the pandemic. From navigating telework to masking requirements, the additional stressors brought on by COVID-19 have created extraordinary challenges for employees, especially health care workers.

While the VA typically has a turnover rate of about 9.6% each year, staffing issues have increased during the pandemic, driving up the need to focus on retention. During a congressional hearing in March, the VHA’s chief of human capital management Jessica Bonjorni described the staffing shortage problem as escalating.

“Having not given it a rating previous to the pandemic, I’m going to say I would rate it at a seven right now,” she said, on a scale of one to 10, before describing it pre-pandemic as a “probably closer to four or five.”

Nearly half of health workers have reported burnout during COVID-19, according to research done by the American Medical Association.

A number of VA program offices assisted in addressing employee well-being after the start of the pandemic. Efforts included the creation of an employee support toolkit, webinar resources and even programs from the National VA Chaplain Service.

Despite the COVID-19 response plan, the inspector general's survey found that employees still did not think they were getting adequate assistance or responsiveness from VA leadership on the unique mental challenges posed by the pandemic.

In its COVID-19 response report, the VHA found that 19% of staff was experiencing burnout. Additionally, 25% of staff shared they were experiencing high or extremely high levels of stress. The VA subsequently created a task force in November 2021 to address the issue. The agency has also created a chief employee well-being officer within one of its VHA offices to guide its long-term well-being strategy.

The inspector general recommended in the report that the VA increase employee awareness of its COVID-19 emotional well-being resources.

The VA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Military.com; however, in the report, VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Steven Lieberman concurred with the recommendation. He noted the agency's primary action will be to complete the work of its burnout task force by the end of this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists on its website other resources for health professionals to handle the emotional stress of providing care and services during the pandemic.

Editor's Note: After publication, a VA spokesperson reached out to Military.com with the following comment: "VA already has begun addressing the OIG’s recommendation with establishment of the Reducing Employee Burnout and Optimizing Organizational Thriving (REBOOT) Taskforce in November 2021. ... VA remains committed to addressing system stressors that contribute to burnout, and fostering joy and wellbeing in the workplace."

-- Jonathan Lehrfeld is a fellow at Military.com. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media.

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