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Trends in the federal workforce: A review of the 2021 FEVS

June 28, 2022 - 14 min read

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Federal personnel are burnt out and disengaged

The Silver Tsunami meets the Great Reshuffling

Lack of meaningful and measurable change in equity, inclusion, and belonging

Looking ahead

There's no debate: the world of work is changing. And federal employees are not immune from this changing world of work. 

Let's break down what workplace trends are happening in the federal workforce — and how it parallels what's happening in the workforce at large. 

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) is an organizational climate survey that assesses how personnel perceives critical topics including their work experiences, their agency, and leadership. Although FEVS is administered annually in late spring as a census of all federal employees, this past year’s FEVS was administered in November 2021.

This year’s administration was treated as a census for most Federal agencies, meaning all eligible employees received an invitation to participate. Only the 10 largest agencies were sampled to have statistically significant representation.

Trends in the federal workforce

Results of the 2021 FEVS were released on April 28th. BetterUp’s Government team of Ph.D. behavioral scientists conducted a deep dive analysis to identify some underlying trends that should be top of mind for both CHCOs and agency leaders across the federal government.

Federal personnel are burnt out and disengaged

Mirroring trends across the private sector, indicators of federal employee burnout and disengagement are at troubling levels. Several leading indicators of burnout declined since the 2020 FEVS administration: 

  • 62% of respondents report having a reasonable workload (down from 67%)
  • 80% report adapting well to changing priorities (down from 87%)
  • 60% perceive their senior leaders demonstrate support for work-life programs (down from 64%)

This aligns with recent BetterUp research indicating that over 60% of our federal government members entered coaching with more than one indicator of burnout (e.g., poor rest, lack of focus, self-compassion) as a key development opportunity. 

Similarly, research from Eagle Hill Consulting suggests that 65% of government employees are burnt out — compared to just 44% in the private sector. This is important because employees experiencing burnout are 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job, 63% more likely to take a sick day from work, and twice as likely to experience a safety incident on the job.

Engagement as a buffer against burnout

On the flip side, while high engagement can’t prevent or fully combat burnout, experiencing high engagement can buffer individuals from some of burnout’s deleterious effects. Although the overall FEVS Employee Experience Index (EEI) dropped just a point (from 72% to 71%) since 2020, the Intrinsic Work Experience subcomponent dropped more notably (from 76% to 73%). 

The intrinsic work experience refers to feelings of role-specific motivation and competency. Not only is it a core driver of employee engagement, but it also helps to buffer against work stressors and burnout

Leaders Lead is a subcomponent of the EEI that assesses perceptions of leadership integrity and leadership behaviors, such as communication and the ability to inspire and motivate others. Research suggests that one of the top drivers of both reduced burnout and higher engagement is a person’s relationship with their immediate leader

The Leaders Lead subcomponent of the EEI dropped from 62% in 2020 to 60% in 2021. This means that 2 out of every 5 employees believe there is room for improvement amongst leaders across agency levels.

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The Silver Tsunami meets the Great Reshuffling

The Great Resignation. The Great Reshuffling. The Big Quit (my personal favorite). Regardless of the term you use, the growing trend of employees leaving their current roles, leaving their companies, and leaving the workforce altogether has been a leading topic of discussion over the past two years. 

While there has been a growing concern about losing talent to the private sector, the bigger (pre-pandemic) concern was preparing for the growing number of retirement-eligible employees in the federal workforce. FEVS results suggest that 7% of federal employees intend to retire within a year’s time, and 29% plan to retire from the federal workforce within the next five years.

But now, less tenured employees are becoming more dissatisfied and likely to leave as well. Worker satisfaction dropped significantly to 64% in 2021 (from 69% in 2020). Of particular concern, satisfaction with one’s agency or organization (-5 pts, 61%), satisfaction with pay (-6 pts, 61%), and satisfaction with one’s job (-5 pts, 67%) all dropped notably year over year. 

Trends aside, interpreting these results at face value indicates that over one-third of the federal workforce is not satisfied with their current work circumstances. This is important because research suggests that organizational commitment and job satisfaction are two of the leading indicators of voluntary turnover. Indeed, only 67% of federal employees indicated that they would recommend their agency or organization (eNPS) in 2021, down from 71% in 2020.

Given this collision course of events, it’s no surprise that 34% of federal employees intend to leave their organization sooner rather than later. Many have plans to retire (7%) or seek another job (21%).

Applying these findings to the broader federal workforce with over 2 million employees (not including active duty military and contractors) means there may be an additional 680,000+ open roles to fill in the next 12-18 months. 

While agency leaders may not (and perhaps, should not) choose to prevent retirement-eligible personnel from enjoying their golden years, there are actions that can be taken to build commitment among the other 27% who may be intending to leave. A recent Work Institute report suggests that 77% of voluntary turnover is avoidable and that the top reasons for leaving are a lack of career development opportunities, poor work-life balance, and unsupportive manager behaviors. A deeper analysis of the FEVS results validates these findings and suggests that agency leaders can take action in the following ways:

1. Manage workloads

Set clear expectations and help personnel maintain reasonable workloads to prevent burnout. Excluding those who intend to retire, only 48% of employees who are seeking another position claim to have a reasonable workload compared to 70% among those who intend to stay — a 22% difference!

2. Prioritize career development

Create and provide career development opportunities (lateral, vertical, diagonal) for personnel across levels, ranks, and grades. Organizations build loyalty and commitment when they invest in career growth and professional development for their personnel. 

Among those federal employees intending to leave, only 48% report being given a real opportunity to improve their skills, compared to 79% among those who intend to stay — a 31% difference! What is more is that senior leaders (86%) are significantly more likely to receive development opportunities compared to non-supervisors (66%), team leaders (69%), and front-line supervisors (71%).

3. Retain and develop leaders

Double down on your investment in leadership development. Leaders play an outsized role in the work experience and retention of their team members. However, access to and quality of leadership development varies across levels. 

Leadership development should be an essential component of your employee retention strategy. 86% of personnel who intend to stay in their current roles believe their immediate supervisor is doing a great job, and 76% believe their manager’s manager is doing a great job 

(compared to only 62% and 45%, respectively, for those who intend to leave). As an added bonus, it’s a leader retention strategy as well.

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Lack of meaningful and measurable change in equity, inclusion, and belonging

It has been almost one year since President Biden’s Executive Order to promote Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) in the federal workforce. With respect to representation, people of color make up about 40% of the U.S. population and about 38% of the full-time federal workforce — but only 22% of SES leaders. In addition, women make up about 51% of the U.S. population and about 43% of the full-time federal workforce, but only 34% of GS-13+ leaders (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). 

And while the 2021 administration of FEVS occurred just a few months after the EO, discrepancies between the experiences of federal employees remain glaring. For example, while 79% of federal employees agree that their supervisor is committed to a workforce representative of all segments of society, this number is largely carried by White employees, of which 81% agree. Conversely, only 76% of Black/African American employees and 73% of multi-racial employees agree. 

Similarly, only 72% of people of color have trust and confidence in their supervisor, whereas 78% of White employees do. As a result, people of color report being significantly more likely to leave the federal workforce than their White colleagues — a trend that continues from 2020.

The importance of inclusive leadership 

Differences in perceptions of inclusive leadership and a sense of belonging are not confined only to race and ethnicity. Results suggest that more senior personnel report being treated with less respect than their younger colleagues. Transgender employees receive less support and development opportunities from their immediate supervisor (62%) and their agency or organization overall (51%) compared to those who are cisgender (78% and 69%, respectively). 

Further, about 16% of the federal workforce identifies as having a disability. However, this likely underestimates the true population, as many disabilities are invisible. According to the Department of Labor, only 21% disclose their disabilities to HR. 

The FEVS results make one thing clear: Federal employees who identify as having a disability have lower FEVS scores nearly across the board.

So what does all of this mean for agency leaders? It requires purposeful, intentional action and shared accountability to create an environment where every employee feels seen, heard, valued, and like they have an equal opportunity to succeed. Unsurprisingly, this begins with a focus on developing your managers and supervisors as role models of inclusive leadership. 

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Creating tangible DEIA change

Inclusive leadership is at the core of tangible DEIA change. It’s central to helping your agency’s employees thrive and become more effective leaders themselves. Being an inclusive leader means leaning into listening, centering on marginalized voices, and signaling openness to learn. Inclusive leaders value diverse perspectives and learn to overcome their own individual biases (we all have them!). These biases affect everything from hiring to access, development opportunities and promotions to performance management. 

As highlighted above with data on representation of women and people of color, the federal government does a good job of hiring people from diverse backgrounds. However, the shortfall occurs when it comes to developing, promoting, and retaining them over time. 

Differentially investing and supporting the development of women and under-represented minorities (URMs) is a critical piece of building a culture of inclusion and belonging. Employees need to be able to see themselves in their leadership. If women and people of color — early in their federal careers — are offered personal, professional, and leadership development opportunities, and access to mentors and sponsors, then they’re more likely to one day become leaders themselves. 

Finally, allyship is a critical component of inclusivity. With social inequality ever present, allyship that is driven by action, not just intention, is essential in order to establish more just and equitable communities and workplaces. Allies feel a sense of responsibility to use their position of privilege to drive tangible change, creating a positive ripple effect across the agency and fostering a culture of belonging and inclusion.

Looking ahead

The 2022 FEVS will return to a full census in late-Spring, offering up a unique opportunity to measure change over a shorter period of time (~six months). Coaching is one incredibly effective intervention that can drive meaningful change in each of the critical areas highlighted above. 

For more information on how BetterUp can support your agency or how BetterUp is currently supporting other innovative agencies, request an executive briefing.

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Published June 28, 2022

Michael Litano, Ph.D.

Dr. Mike Litano is AVP of People Insights at BetterUp and an Adjunct Professor of graduate-level courses at Georgetown University. At BetterUp, he leads teams of Ph.D. behavioral science consultants that advise federal agencies and international/global organizations on best-practice behavioral solutions to organizational challenges. Prior to BetterUp, Dr. Litano built people analytics and strategy teams at both Capital One and NASA (LaRC). He earned his Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA in 2016.

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