Why it’s time for public sector employers to be concerned about employee happiness

By ServiceNow

Government teams in Singapore are facing an exodus of talent, calling for a relook into what constitutes employee happiness and what employers can do to retain talent in the public service.

A recent roundtable hosted by GovInsider and ServiceNow found that trust granted to employees has become a crucial factor to employee happiness and wellbeing. Image: Canva.

In the first half of 2021 alone, around 1,500 medical workers in Singapore resigned from their posts. This resulted in a crippling void in healthcare capacity when the world was knee-deep in the Covid-19 pandemic.

When contrasted with the pre-pandemic rate of approximately 2,000 resignations per year, the great resignation revealed manpower inefficacies to healthcare leaders during a time of great difficulty. Already overworked and fatigued healthcare workers were pushed past their limit when a crisis hit, and those who stayed on faced even greater stress.

This phenomenon of burnout, high attrition rate, and manpower shortage is not exclusive to the healthcare industry. Other parts of the public sector, such as education and the military, are facing similarly unprecedented personnel departures triggered by longer working hours, labour shortages and budget cuts.
In February 2022, Minister-in-Charge of the Public Service Mr Chan Chun Sing said in Parliament that the resignation rate for the Management Executive Scheme – the largest generic scheme in the Civil Service – reached a 10-year peak of 9.9 per cent in 2021.

“There are various factors contributing to attrition from the Public Service, including pressures of the job, pay, and opportunities for professional development and progression…The shift to remote work has also blurred the line between work and life,” he said.

Yet, retaining talent in the public sector amidst increasingly attractive private sector offers is arguably one of the most crucial conditions for successful governance for any state. The best and brightest talent need to have deep reasons to stay in the public sector, so that they can solve pressing state issues on all fronts – including cyberattacks, water and food security, healthcare, and many others.

GovInsider dives deep into what constitutes employee happiness in the current workforce climate, with insights from a recent roundtable held in July 2022 hosted in conjunction with digital tech solution provider, ServiceNow.

A post-pandemic workforce: Trust, communication, and morale are key

The pandemic has brought about certain fundamental changes in workplace place culture. In healthcare, employees have noticed the rise of more purposeful communication since the introduction of hybrid or remote work. Managers are now more conscious of creating channels of communication, even for previously stigmatised topics such as mental health.

For instance, Tan Tock Seng Hospital has implemented communication guidelines since the pandemic. These include being transparent about uncertain situations as opposed to blindly reassuring employees, informing employees of updates before they do the media, and always following feedback collection with action in order to build long-term trust.

Trust has also become a larger denominator in the equation, and employees appreciate it when they are granted trust, GovInsider’s roundtable found. For example, some healthcare institutions implemented “Hero Days'' during the pandemic, where employees could take time off without having to apply for official leave. This boosted morale as people felt recognised and trusted.

Contrastingly, this was a factor that those in the education sector found to be lacking. Participants at GovInsider’s roundtable voiced that management-level staff need to have greater levels of trust in employees to work independently without supervision. They believe that this would also create a greater feedback loop of greater ownership and accountability.

Employees at other government agencies appreciate when leaders make a conscious effort to celebrate work milestones or acknowledge increased workloads. One agency, for instance, recognised that the workload of civil servants increased by two to three times during the pandemic. During the December lull, they then implemented a three-day workweek that greatly improved morale.

Bureaucracy a key overarching inefficacy

These new flexibilities in work have inevitably brought about ramifications in workforce management. Those in the education sector said that many top-down changes in working arrangements were executed without consideration or sensitivity to what happens on the ground. The slow pace of change on the ground has in turn created friction between management and staff. To add to this, many teaching staff have switched to part-time or adjunct work, putting stresses on the full-time employers that remain.

The problems of bureaucracy are a common concern across sectors. Participants of the roundtable observed that the lack of speed and agility in taking up new talent have in turn affected morale. Slow promotion cycles and gaps in training and practical application have hindered staff from moving along in their careers.

On the employer’s end of things, leaders are facing issues with attracting the right talent, both due to skill shortages and budget restraints. This has led to many employing interim solutions such as hiring temp staff, resulting in a “knowledge drain” and the need for long-term staff to constantly reintegrate new colleagues.

Finally, there is a mismatch in expectations as a new generation of employees enters the workforce. This generation may value work-life balance over remuneration, making it harder to attract younger talent that come with fresh solutions and ideas to solve current inefficacies.

To attract younger talent, public sector employees must begin to speak in their language by offering work-life welfare instead of purely relying on salary increases. These can manifest in many forms, including four-day work weeks, welfare days, hybrid working arrangements, or parental leaves.

Steps to be taken to develop a longer-lasting workforce

In the face of these pressing challenges, public servants need to recognise the role that tech can play in promoting employee happiness. ServiceNow, for example, offers an employee journey mapping tool that can help employers navigate career transitions within organisations by understanding their strengths, skill sets, and desired areas of improvement.

Further, low-code and no-code tools can also help older workers pick up the tech expertise they need for mid-career switches. This will help to address problems with skill shortage and talent attraction amidst the fierce competition for personnel with private sector hirers and encourage longevity in employees’ public sector tenures.

Nevertheless, tech on its own is not a silver bullet, and its effectiveness hinges greatly on a mindset change. Similar to the process of hiring new staff, the bureaucratic clearance required for tech solutions to be implemented has often resulted in them being obsolete by the time they are in place. This requires a reformative introspection of internal processes so that redundant paperwork can be eliminated for more efficient implementation.

To facilitate the quick uptake of up-and-coming work optimising tools, ServiceNow offers a modern employee experience platform that helps to unite the many operating systems that employees use on a daily basis. This platform is powered by AI, robotic process automation, and low code to ensure that it is user-friendly and continues to support legacy systems in the interim.

Other adaptations outside the field of tech may include valuing experience over paper qualifications, or encouraging staff at all levels to “return to school” so that they may evolve alongside their organisations. Ultimately, empathetic leadership and a progressive mindset are key to retaining workers in any organisation, with or without the use of tech.