Battle-scarred, understaffed, Covid-19 Task Force employees are expected to help Canadians.

The latest federal government employee survey data about how the pandemic is impacting the lives of Canada’s public servants paints a grim picture and may be a clue why the public is often confused about messages guiding us on what to do or not about Covid-19 and its ugly variants.

Effective crisis communication requires consistent messaging, credible sources, and trusted information. When the official guiding light of Canada’s pandemic response has a cadre of beleaguered employees, it suggests a foundational reason why perhaps the rest of us are in a daze about covid.

While it can be expected that public servants, like all of us, are stressed out and in various states of personal conflict, the real shocker is the impact of Covid-19 on federal departments created to protect us from the virus, particularly the official Covid-19 Task Force.

The release in early 2021 of the 2020 Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) provides fine-grained evidence of how 188,786 federal government employees have been impacted by Covid-19. The responses came nationally from 87 federal departments and agencies who were surveyed between November 30, 2020 to January 29, 2021 (https://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pses-saff/2020/results-resultats/en/bq-pq/org/06/201).

Let us focus on the federal Covid-19 Task Force comprised of mostly volunteer, multidisciplinary experts, scientists, physicians, and industry leaders. The official federal description is that the Task Force “Helps the Government of Canada make sound evidence-based decisions to protect the health and safety of Canadians during the pandemic. The Task Force’s mandate includes vaccinations, therapeutics, and effective responses to the virus.”

But as with any organizational pursuit, efficiency and effectiveness is usually the result of the well being, morale, and leadership of those who do the daily grind of often less glamorous and little noticed essential work. Hence the flapping red flag spotted in the Public Service Employee survey reporting on answers from 50 Public Servant employees providing support to the Covid-19 Task Force. The survey shows that:

  • Less than half (48%) agreed that “I have clear work objectives.”
  • Barely half (52%) of Covid-19 Task Force employees agreed that “I get the training I need to do my job.”
  • Only half (53%) agreed that “My physical environment (e.g., office, workspace) is suitable for my job requirements.”
  • 52% agreed that “I have support at work to balance my work and personal life.”
  • Only a third (34%) agreed that “I can complete my assigned workload during my regular working hours.” Only half (53%) agree that they “rarely, never/almost never” can complete their work during regular hours.
  • Only half (54%) of Covid-19 Task Force employees agreed “I would describe my workplace as being psychologically healthy.” Remember, the Task Force is a creation of Health Canada where by contrast 71% of employees in the entire ministry agreed they have a psychologically healthy workplace.

On their workplace and by extension federal Health Canada ministry ratings, Covid-19 Task Force employees provided the following assessment:

  • Just under half (49%) agreed that “I feel that the quality of my work suffers because of constantly changing priorities.”
  • Only 19% of Covid-19 Task Force employees requested flexible work hours compared to 41% of Health Canada Public Servants and 39% of all Public Servants in the federal government. This is commendable for their task at hand but also may mean that they already had very flexible hours.
  • More telling from a management perspective is that less than half (43%) of Covid-19 Task Force Public Service managers supported the use of flexible hours compared to 76% of Health Canada Public Service employees. Again, this may be seen in the context of the pandemic’s need, but it may also speak to organizational decision-making.

What the latest Public Service Employee Survey shows is that many of the issues surfacing in the many past such surveys have not gone away. Overall, federal government Public Service employees are understaffed, face conflicting priorities, have very skeptical opinions of senior management (not so much immediate supervisors), and continue to operate in anything but an emotional healthy workplace.

Studying the Public Service Employee Surveys over many years and having being embedded in the federal workplace for almost 20 years, it ceased to be a surprise to many of us employees that little substantial, short of snappy slogans, was ever done to address the many gaps in leadership and workplace wellness.

Except this time, with a deadly pandemic killing Canadians and collapsing areas of our economy, with fear and uncertainly numbing our minds, many of us had hoped for something better from those controlling organizational structures and systems that can save or sink us.

We are still waiting.

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