(National Council of Social Security Management Associations)
In Search of a
Combating Stress and
Burnout in SSA
(National Council of Social Security Management Associations)
The NCSSMA recently conducted a national survey to gauge the feelings of
management who are predominantly working in field offices and teleservice centers
across the country. The response rate was excellent with over 2300 employees
completing the survey. The comments and insights provided by management employees
in various positions throughout the nation were compelling. There are serious concerns
about several Human Resource issues including employee stress and burnout, recruitment
and retention, low morale and LMR issues that need to be addressed. The purpose of this
paper is to illuminate these issues, share some of the current research in these areas and
offer some suggestions for change. We believe that a business case could be made for
implementation of all the ideas presented in this document.
“At a time of intense global competition, most corporations, government agencies
and non-profit associations alike have exhausted whatever efficiency and cost-
cutting improvements there were to be extracted from reengineering and
downsizing. And, many have found that they have cut, not only the fat, but also
much of their muscle (or even lifeblood), that is their best employees.”1
Social Security is not alone in acknowledging that it has made mistakes and gone too far
with downsizing and delayering. Although our current administration is working hard to
reverse the damage and get us the resources we so desperately need, it is coming much
too slowly for any measurable relief to be felt. The average age of SSA employees is 47.2
They survived the downsizing of the late ‘80s to be followed by the escalating workloads
of the early ‘90s which continues. Working in field offices and teleservice centers has
been likened to being on a treadmill where the speed keeps getting turned up a notch and
you can’t turn it off. We all know what happens when you try to step off a moving
treadmill. Employees are burning out and in dire need of slowing down.
Technological improvements have helped to bridge the gap, but are not enough to
maintain our pace in trying to keep up with the work. Rapid technological changes
introduce new stressors into the workplace as employees must learn new systems.
Automation has made it too easy for multiple components to issue new mandates, new
procedures and new requirements directly to field offices and teleservice centers. Prior to
automation, new policy and procedures were directed to the Regional Offices to
coordinate and disseminate. Now with the push of a button, all responsibility is pushed
onto downsized field and TSC management. Time frames for reports and required
responses have shortened dramatically too. Gone are the days of working the office email
inbox once a day. It has become imperative that we check it frequently. Additionally,
automation has bombarded our workforce with more information than they can possibly
absorb. All of this adds to the pressure in our workplace.
In the “National Study of the Changing Workforce” published by the Families and
Work Institute, researchers found that the quality of the worker’s jobs and the
supportiveness of their workplaces are the most powerful predictors of productivity--job
satisfaction, commitment to their employers and retention.3 High quality jobs are defined
Don Grimme, ”An American Crises: Attracting, Retaining & Motivating Employees.” The Grimme
Report (2001): 1.
“SSA Taking Steps For Succession Planning.” Federal Employees News Digest, Volume 52 #30 (2003).
Families and Work Institute, "National Study of the Changing Workforce." Work-Life Research (1997): 1.
as those that offer autonomy, learning opportunities, meaning and a chance to get ahead.
Supportive workplaces are those that help employees to be more effective workers,
people and parents. They provide flexibility in work arrangements, supervisor support,
supportive workplace culture, positive coworker relations, absence of discrimination,
respect in the workplace, and equal opportunity for workers of all backgrounds.
The study found that many employers try to meet work-life needs with wellness
programs, employee assistance programs, child and elder care information and referral
services, and direct child care services, but these are not enough. Work life is a potential
important source of employee’s personal problems. “Of particular concern are the negative
spillover effects that demanding and hectic jobs have on the quality of worker’s personal
lives and well being. When job demands exceed some individually defined level, it seems
that not even the most supportive workplaces can fully protect workers from negative
spillover into their personal lives. This spillover is reflected in high stress, poor coping, bad
moods, and insufficient time and energy for people who are personally important, creating
problems that spill over into work and impair job performance.”4 The research showed that
substantial numbers of employees feel burned out by their jobs with 26% feeling
emotionally drained by their work often or very often and 36% feeling used up at the end of
the workday often or very often.5 Our own management survey indicates that these
feelings are also prevalent in SSA:
“After 38 years with SSA and many years in management, I have seen some of my
staff burn out. This is evident in lack of caring for their work product, level of
service, timeliness and general attitude toward the public. What hurts me most is
that I hired some of these individuals 20-25 years ago and now I’ve seen their
enthusiasm burned away by the program, congressional stupidity/political action,
agency action/inaction and the demands of the public. Sadly, I find little that I
can do to reverse this attitude and will most likely be there myself in a short
“We basically operate on razor thin staffing margins, thus a few absences affect
not only our ability to deal with the public but to train our newer employees as
well as the rest. Job stress is a growing concern for this agency’s employees both
young and old alike.”
“The main problem is that no matter what I say, my employees take their work
home with them--that is, with their stress levels. They seem stressed out all the
time and cannot seem to shake it even when not working.”
“We still take a “fingers in the dike” approach to many problems. We are unable
to balance all of the needs of the staff and of the public. There is no balance
between interviewing and adjudication time. The workloads are increasing simply
because the employees have no time to clear what has been on their desks for
days or weeks. We see an average of 250 people a day in this office and are
packed from the moment we open until the moment we close. The CRs average 11
Families and Work Institute, "National Study of the Changing Workforce." Work-Life Research (1997): 13.
Families and Work Institute, "National Study of the Changing Workforce." Work-Life Research (1997): 7.
interviews a day each. This adds to their stress as they try to do the best job, but
find themselves falling further and further behind. This leads to increased sick
days and use of other leave.”
It is clear that the agency needs to address the issue of stress and burnout, which
are negatively impacting the morale and health of our employees. We are seeing
increasing numbers of employees becoming ill or being put on anxiety medications. Even
retaining new employees is becoming more difficult. In NCSSMA’s 2003 Survey of
Management nearly 38% of those responding stated they had difficulty retaining
employees due to stress and health related problems.
Stress and Other Health Related Problems Make it Difficult for
Me to Retain Employees
Strongly Strongly Agree
A transfusion of new blood to re-energize and revitalize our agency is also
needed. In these lean times it becomes imperative that SSA not only hire the right people,
but learn how to retain them. The employees in today’s market do not expect to stay with
one employer long-term. According to the “Report from the Workgroup on Recruitment
and Retention,” published December 4, 2000 in this agency, the cost of new hire
separations during fiscal years 1998 to 2000 were close to $24,000,000. The workgroup
stated, “SSA needs employees committed to our mission. The primary factors driving
commitment are trust and a positive, personal connection with leadership. Studies have
shown that to achieve this, particularly among younger workers, employers need to focus
on work-life issues, competitiveness of rewards, opportunities to use a variety of job
skills, continuous learning opportunities, and improving the physical work environment.”
According to Don Grimme, co-founder of GHR Training Solutions, organizations that
successfully attract, retain and motivate the best employees are characterized by:
1. “The pay ain’t bad”
2. “And they treat their employees GREAT!”6
Management gurus such as Abraham Maslow, Frederick Hertzberg and Peter Drucker
have maintained for decades, “It is the quality of the work itself and of our relationships
with others at work that draws us to the best organizations and keeps us there, performing
“Don Grimme, ”An American Crises: Attracting, Retaining & Motivating Employees.” The Grimme
Report (2001): 1.
at peak effectiveness.”7
Government regulations control much of what we can offer employees in terms of
pay and benefits, which in many parts of the country are very competitive. The agency
has control over the work environment that it provides which is, in many ways, a product
of our culture. Commissioner Barnhart has stated in many talks that she is committed to
making SSA a better place to work. She clearly values the employees and would appear
to favor building a supportive environment within the agency. Now is the time for
action. The Gallup organization recently published a report on the “Impact of Employee
Attitudes on Business Outcomes.” They found that businesses with high employee
• 38% higher customer satisfaction scores
• 22% higher productivity and
• 27% higher profits.8
Although higher profit is not a motivating factor for SSA, achieving higher productivity
and customer satisfaction certainly are. The question then is how do we provide the high
quality job and supportive workplace needed to reach optimum employee satisfaction?
When asked what could be done to reduce the stress levels the number one answer from
both management and employees is, not surprisingly, hire more staff. That answer,
though simple and true, is not enough. We need a culture change that will require strong
leadership and many actions, both large and small.
Providing high quality jobs is not an obstacle for SSA given the definition of
offering autonomy, learning opportunities, meaning and a chance to get ahead. Most of
our positions provide learning opportunities and meaning. The public service we provide
is critical to those we serve and an important part of the American economy. We make a
difference in people’s lives on a daily basis, which brings value to the work we do. There
is some degree of autonomy in most of our jobs and some chance of getting ahead, but
improvement is desperately needed in this area. Many of our employees have been
stagnated in their current positions for 10 or more years. Delayering of management
closed the doors on advancement for many employees, as there were fewer positions to
compete for. Offering early outs has opened some doors but does not go far enough,
particularly in the management ranks. Offering targeted buyouts would be far more
effective in creating advancement opportunities for employees. The new buyout authority
allows agencies to “reshape” themselves without losing positions. According to Mike
“The number and kind of people who take the reshaping buyouts also could ease,
if not eliminate, the so-called brain drain. Buyouts of long-time employees,
coupled with proposals to forgive student loans in stages, could make government
very competitive. Since the dot.com meltdown and the recession, the government
is already the employer of first choice in terms of job security.”9
“Don Grimme, ”An American Crises: Attracting, Retaining & Motivating Employees.” The Grimme
Report (2001): 1.
“Impact of Employee Attitudes on Business Outcomes.” Gallup Management Journal.
Mike Causey, “Coming Buyouts Designed With Different Purpose.” Federal Employees News Digest
Volume 52 #33 (2003).
With the prospect of a healthy budget and the ability to increase our FTEs next year, the
timing couldn’t be better for making use of this authority to invigorate and reshape the
agency culture as new leaders emerge sending a message of enthusiasm and hope to all
Creating a supportive workplace presents a greater challenge for the agency. We
are a family friendly employer with all of the right benefits, but that is not enough,
particularly when the jobs are highly demanding. Imagine doing a job where you could
never feel in control and caught up; where you talked to people everyday who were
distraught or angry; where you must absorb multiple policy changes, or systems problems
and corrections daily and apply them when you barely have time to read them; where no
matter how hard you worked you got the same “passing” appraisal as the co-worker
coasting by to retirement next to you. This is what our employees live with. The pace has
gotten increasingly frantic over the last 10 years and our employees are wearing down.
Many are no longer engaged in the work we do.
Front line management shapes the local environment and undoubtedly has the
biggest role to play in an employee’s development and sense of well being. We are often
our own worse enemies. The “Report from the Workgroup on Recruitment and
Retention” (SSA, 2000) acknowledged the importance of the managers and supervisors in
creating a supportive work environment. They recognized that “SSA’s historical mission
and heavy workloads foster a heavily task-oriented culture that is reflected in our
selection of managers, our expectations for their performance and behaviors, and how
they are rewarded.” Our management staffs were selected based on years of specialized
technical work and are very task-centered which served the agency well for many years.
People have gotten where they are in this agency because they behaved in ways that were
rewarded by our current culture.
If we wish to change our culture and continue to succeed we must become
employee-centered. Our primary focus must be on our most valuable asset--our
employees. The current research tells us that we need to get to know each of our
employees personally and let them know that we care about them as people, not just
workers. We need to praise them frequently and recognize performance appropriately and
consistently. We need to reward outstanding performance with promotions and
opportunities and not tolerate sustained poor performance. We must involve employees
in plans and decisions. We must actively listen to them and share information promptly
and openly. We must be honest with them and celebrate successes.
Cultural change is never easy, but it can be done. Nothing will change unless the
rules change. Absent radical change in rewards and incentives for people to act
differently, they won’t. For example, we can talk about operating principles and the
importance of quality, but until the Area Director is calling the office that clears 80% of
their RZ’s in 3 months to question them on how they achieved such an anomalous result
versus the office that missed the targeted 40% by 1%, the real message is clear on what
the culture rewards. We have taken some small steps in the right direction by articulating
a new agency philosophy, but giant steps are needed to truly initiate change. In our
recent survey one manager stated,
“I always try to include the employees in the decisions that are made. I try to
help them feel wanted and needed and stress the importance of our jobs at SSA in
serving the public. I treat them as I want to be treated. I try to pass ‘joy’ on to
them. We need to be professional and I believe people work better when they are
happy. I try to involve everyone in the process of making our office a better
place. We are in a really good position right now because of the new hires. My
vision is to have a positive work environment and serve the public in the best
possible way. I believe my leadership has and will continue to make a difference
at SSA and I want the staff to follow me in my vision…I want a high performing
SSA office with a healthy, happy work force. Most offices have a high stress level
that has to do with staffing shortages and how they are treated…attitudes of the
employees. I think if people are happy, the stress is minimized.”
Isn’t this the ideal to which we should all aspire?
Here are some actions SSA can take to promote a supportive work
environment for all of its employees:
Reduce the number of goals and targets. Historically a balanced approach simply
meant more targets in more categories of work. In the December 2001 Survey of
Management, 89% felt we were putting too much emphasis on targets and productivity
goals. In the current survey, about 27% see a more reasonable and balanced approach.
However 42% see no improvement and 30% state the situation had gotten worse since the
last survey 14 months ago.
Agency Moving Toward More Balanced Approach to Service
Strongly Strongly Agree
Simply reducing the goals and eliminating or scaling back the targets would go a long
way in relieving stress for both management and our employees. What an easy way to
send the message that the agency understands and cares about the toll the work is taking
on its employees.
Add more management positions. There are simply not enough of us out here to
provide the support needed by our employees. Many employees have been stagnated in
their positions for 10 or more years with no opportunity for advancement. More career
opportunities are needed. Additionally, our employee friendly benefits of flextime,
alternate work schedules, family friendly leave, credit hours, VDT vision benefits, paid
flu shots, etcetera all require more management oversight, not less. Leave scheduling
and operational planning to meet public service needs have become more complex. Our
increased emphasis on security and integrity issues has further exacerbated the demands
on field management. The increasing numbers of new employees requires a high level of
management oversight to ensure that training is accomplished and work is reviewed for
Reassess the current management structure. The consequences of delayering and the
upgrade of subordinate positions have effectively devalued field management jobs. We
need to make sure that our management structure makes good business sense. It has
become increasingly difficult to attract good people to entry-level management positions.
Supporting supervisory overtime at a higher grade level than the current GS10-1 would
help, but the agency must look to the future and find creative ways to make these
positions both attractive and desirable.
Improve communication. There is too much programmatic material sent out for
employees to absorb and too little two-way communication occurs. Employees need to
understand the big picture and feel that their voices are heard. Too often we are talked to
and not given the opportunity to be listened to. We need to be included in decision
making that impacts us. The current Survey of Management indicates that we are moving
in the right direction as 42% felt communication and trust had improved.
Improved Communication and Trust
Strongly Strongly Agree
Offer targeted buyouts. Offering buyouts would provide the agency with a mechanism
for maintaining or increasing staff diversity in addition to an opportunity to reshape the
location of staff to better reflect current demographics and workloads. It should be a part
of succession planning which includes advance hiring, a review and restructuring of
career paths and a reassessment of the management structure. The impact on employee
morale would be enormous as it would also provide greatly needed promotional
opportunities for employees. Cultural change cannot occur without some injection of new
blood into the management ranks as we move towards a more employee-centered
Provide management training. Some managers and supervisors are naturally employee-
centered, but many are not. Training is needed to teach us these skills. We need to learn
how to coach our employees effectively and we need the time to do it. New management
employees are rarely given training in a timely manner due to a variety of reasons
including the timing of the promotion and budget restraints. This creates an extremely
stressful period for the new manager, particularly for those going to offices without
administrative aides. The MSS/OS position is not generally exposed to the facilities,
purchasing and administrative duties of a manager. Being forced to learn them on our
own is inefficient and ineffective as a lot of time is wasted searching for answers and
Improve our performance management system. We need a meaningful appraisal
system that values productivity as well as characteristics like cooperation, attitude,
flexibility, leadership, etc. Perhaps management should utilize 360 appraisal tools which
solicit feedback from superiors, subordinates and peers for our own development and
assessment. Subordinate feedback may be more helpful than that of our superiors, in our
quest of a supportive environment.
Create a meaningful awards system for both employees and management.
We need to renegotiate the contract to give management exclusive rights in determining
awards for employees. This must be an integral part of any new performance appraisal
system. Timing of awards is critical if they are to have the desired effect on behavior. We
need to get back to giving performance awards in November after the appraisals have
been completed. Other awards should be fluid and given throughout the year to recognize
positive actions as they occur.
Make it easier to eliminate poor performers. Good employees are demoralized when a
few workers get by doing nothing. There are too many steps in the current process. We
need to simplify and streamline it.
Renegotiate the AFGE contract to better balance employee needs with our ability to
provide good public service. Ideally, we would like core hours that employees are
required to work match the hours that the office is open to the public. We realize that
given the variation in office hours across the nation that this may not be achievable in a
national contract. Restricting flextime to 7:30am would allow most offices to meet
coverage demands without seriously impacting employees. They would still have an hour
and a half to flex in each morning.
Allow management to determine what training and office meetings it deems important
enough to suspend flextime for. Although this right currently exists in the contract, most
regions have strongly advised managers not to suspend or alter flextime. Simply being
able to ask employees to be in by 8:00am a few days a month would enable us to provide
necessary training. Having to provide multiple training sessions to avoid suspending or
altering flextime is not an efficient use of scarce resources. Employees have a
responsibility to receive training as much as we have a responsibility to provide it and
many are missing important topics.
Credit hours offer additional flexibility particularly to new employees with little leave,
but our current approach to them hampers our ability to do business and compounds
employee stress and burnout. We have been told that we cannot deny an employee’s
“right” to work credit hours because we always have available work to do. Many of our
employees are in the 8 hour leave category which is very generous in comparison to
private industry. Do they really need more time off? The unfortunate employee whose
personal life does not allow him/her to work credit hours is negatively impacted by those
who can. He/she is one of the few employees left in the office serving the public and
struggling to keep up while coworkers are out using up their credit hours. Our young
parents who would seemingly benefit most by our flexible “benefits” are often the ones
most adversely affected. Does it make good business sense to allow employees to earn
credit hours on Saturday when we are working overtime and then be out on Monday
when we are open to the public? We would like Saturday credit hours to be eliminated
and the right to better control our employees’ rights to earn and use them.
Advance leave should be strictly limited to emergency situations. The current contract
has liberalized its use and employees are requesting it for vacations and routine purposes.
We have done to leave usage what credit cards have done to savings plans. We believe
that this puts all employees as well as public service at a disadvantage. Failure to plan
ahead to have the leave to meet non-emergency needs impacts severely on the employee
using the leave as well as his co-workers and the public we serve.
Allow hiring to be done year round. Replacing losses quickly would minimize the
negative impact on the remaining employees and office productivity. Most offices go a
year or more before being able to hire a replacement. Add to that the long training time
and the negative impact increases exponentially.
Causey, Mike. “Coming Buyouts Designated With Different Purpose.” Federal
Employees News Digest , Volume 52 #33. 24 March 2003.
“SSA Taking Steps For Succession Planning.” Federal Employees News Digest, Volume
52 #30. 3 March 2003.
Grimme, Don. "An American Crisis: Attracting, Retaining & Motivating Employees."
The Grimme Report (2001.) 12 April 2002
Grimme, Don. "Grimme's Top Ten Tips To Attract, Retain and Motivate Employees."
The Grimme Report (2001.) 13 April 2002
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