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Feds dissatisfied: Survey shows morale in decline

Dec. 3, 2012 - 07:59AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI and SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Above, AFGE employee Rotimi Onaghise, left, protests with VA employees against VA's job downgrades last June. VA spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said in a statement that the drop in job satisfaction shown on the latest Federal Employee Viewpoints Sutvey was caused in part by tightening budgets and public opinion of the federal workforce.
Above, AFGE employee Rotimi Onaghise, left, protests with VA employees against VA's job downgrades last June. VA spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said in a statement that the drop in job satisfaction shown on the latest Federal Employee Viewpoints Sutvey was caused in part by tightening budgets and public opinion of the federal workforce. (Thomas Brown / Staff)

The latest governmentwide employee satisfaction survey indicates that budget cuts, a continuing pay freeze and relentless attacks on federal employees are sapping morale and hampering some agencies’ performance, federal managers and experts say.

The latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, conducted by the Office of Personnel Management this year, shows satisfaction is falling in 66 of 77 categories, including pay, morale and overall job satisfaction.

Since 2010, employee satisfaction with pay has fallen 7 percentage points, according to OPM. And just since last year, employees’ satisfaction with their organizations has dropped from 62.3 to 58.9 percent.

The results are especially emphatic because a record-breaking 687,687 employees responded — for a response rate of 46 percent, more than double the number of any previous survey. The governmentwide survey was first administered in 2002.

Experts say the increasing employee disgruntlement is translating into big problems: recruiting top talent is getting harder, turnover is accelerating and productivity is dropping.

For “seasoned employees,” the continuing pay freeze “can be a little disheartening,” said Howvard Brooks, an Internal Revenue Service analyst with 30 years’ federal service. Another factor, Brooks said, is talk among policy makers of tinkering with pensions and other federal benefits. For people close to retirement, he added, “it’s certainly a factor … whether they choose to stay or go.”

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents career federal executives, said she is seeing more retirements as federal pay, benefits and budgets are continually attacked.

“When you are dealing with a workforce that is being pounded and you have tremendous challenges yourself, at some point you just say, ‘It’s time to leave,‘“ Bonosaro said.

She said increasing workloads are wearing out employees, and managers should do what they can to engage them and make them feel appreciated.

“You cannot ignore low morale in the federal workforce because it can make it harder to attract top-tier employees,” Bonosaro said.

And, at some point, it could hurt agency performance, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, which uses the survey data to compile its annual “Best Places to Work” rankings.

“There is a correlation between employee satisfaction as a surrogate for overall employee engagement,” Palguta said. “All the research suggests that the more engaged employees are, the more productive they are.”

Because the declines in this year’s survey are not huge, Palguta was hopeful that the impact on productivity wouldn’t be severe. But, he added, “that’s why this is worth worrying about a little bit, because maybe something falls off the table.”

Agencies are already being hurt by a brain drain fueled by mass retirements and high employee attrition in certain “high-demand positions,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents staff at the IRS and other agencies. As budget pressures keep vacant jobs from being filled, that places a high burden on remaining employees, Kelley added. “Their commitment makes them want to get the job done, even to the point of not taking necessary sick days.”

At some agencies, the falloff in satisfaction was particularly severe. At the Social Security Administration, 66.5 percent of respondents this year had a positive view of their organization, down sharply from 72.3 percent the previous year.

The results “confirm that you are dedicated hard-working employees who understand how your daily contributions affect our agency’s mission,” Reginald Wells, the agency’s chief human capital officer, said in an email to the SSA workforce.

“However, your responses also show that recent challenges such as increasing workloads, pay and hiring freezes and budget cuts, have affected your satisfaction with your jobs,” Wells added.

The Social Security Administration is in the third year of a partial hiring freeze, during which time its workload has grown.

In fiscal 2012, the agency lost more than 1,600 employees, and more reductions are in store under current funding levels, according to a recent inspector general’s report. As a result, the agency expects customer service on its toll-free 800 number “will deteriorate significantly because it will not have a sufficient number of employees to answer calls,” the report said. To save money, SSA officials last month began closing field offices to the public 30 minutes earlier; and starting in January, the agency’s approximately 1,230 offices will shut down to the public at noon on Wednesdays.

Steve Clifton, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, which represents managers in SSA field offices and teleservice centers, said his members are less frustrated by the 2½-year pay freeze than they are by their day-to-day challenge of tackling a growing workload with less staff and budget resources.

The National Science Foundation also saw a steep drop in overall job satisfaction: from 72 percent in 2010 to 64 percent in 2012.

Dana Topousis, NSF spokeswoman, said in a statement the agency is concerned with the drop in morale and is trying to turn it around with more employee engagement.

“While it is important to keep in mind that they occur at a time when federal employees are facing salary freezes, tight budgets and continued negative opinions of government employees in general, this environment makes it all the more important to focus internal efforts on employee morale and employee engagement,” Topousis said.

She said the agency is also looking at its employee workloads and analyzing their impact on overall morale.

Tom Burger, executive director of the Professional Managers Association, said the pay freeze is only part of the problem.

“The real issue is the constant barrage of negative comments about the whole federal workforce and that they are the primary reason the U.S. government is in debt,” Burger said in a statement.

He said he thinks morale is at the lowest level he has ever seen and that if feds are eligible to retire, many are doing so because of the ongoing hostile climate.

He said the attrition and the inability to hire more workers is contributing to backlogs at many agencies, including the Social Security Administration, the IRS and the Veterans Affairs Department.

A supervisor at the Veterans Affairs Department who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation said the number of people leaving his division is “alarming.”

He said by keeping pay frozen, morale has started to suffer and some higher-graded employees are leaving for jobs in the private sector.

“The pay issue is really undermining the foundation of employee morale,” he said.

VA spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said in a statement that the drop in job satisfaction — from 68 to 64 percent over the last year — was caused in part by tightening budgets and public opinion of the federal workforce.

“Despite these drops, VA employees still indicate they like their work, consistently look for ways to better do their jobs, are willing to put in the extra effort to get the job done, believe it is important, indicate they are held accountable for achieving it and know how it relates to the agency’s mission and goals,” Schuda said.

She said the agency conducted its own survey earlier in the year that found overall levels of job satisfaction have remained constant and that the latest survey was more negative because of a lower response rate from VA. Schuda said the VA response rate may have been lower than expected because the department issued its own employee survey right before the governmentwide survey was administered in April, and some employees may have had “survey fatigue.”

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